Borne Under a Bad Sign, finale: Despite the Disappearances, the Dude of NASCAR abides


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Darkness warshed over the Dude – darker’n a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night. There was no bottom. – The Stranger in The Big Lebowski

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After a wreck-addled, caution-infested ARCA race which lasted two-and-a-half hours-it took the field an eternity, it seemed, for Bobby Gearhardt to reach that checkered flag–night had fallen over Daytona International Speedway, creating a wholly different atmosphere, with the brilliant lights of the stadium casting a blare of faux daylight which seamed, as one looked upwards, into a marbleseque blueblackness as deep as all was cold. The stands were filled as far as they would get with about sixty or so thousand fans. Beer was flowing. Voices were getting louder, harsher, impatient for the Real Deal, for those well-known Sprint Cup cars to flow out of Pit Row and begin their hornet’s-nest wolf-pack shark-feeding ass-kicking frenzy around the track.

Strewed throughout the grandstands were clusters of fans of varying faith, a knot in Dale Earnhardt Jr. attire, another weed-patch professing faith in Smoke, ganglia for Jeff Gordon, nebulae for Jimmie Johnson. Other tumors were mixed, showing that clans can adhere without a single racin’ god before them. There were even occasional Kyle Busch fans, brave single souls decked out in jackets which looked like the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota, or rather like a yellow bag of M&Ms.

I got up and walked the distance of the grandstands, stretching my legs, trying to get warm. Roadies were hurriedly setting up for the Zac Brown Band while huge speakers pounded a migrainous mixof Buck Cherry and Nickelback. The Sprint Cup screens provided visual entertainments, displaying text messages from fans (“I heart Matt Kenseth”; “Smoke rules”; “xx kelly and darlene”) interspersed with crowd shots (fans waving and cheering, holding high their beers, shouting out their drivers’ names) and profiles of the drivers as they were lined up (the starting order had been decided by lottery, with Carl Edward drawing the pole). The cheesy sort of entertainment one might expect from a Texas Death Match wrestling event or monster truck pull of state fair: artery-clogging corn dogs for the eye to go with the huge gulps of alcoholic beverages.

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Setting up for the  Zac Brown Band

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I walked down into the underbowels and bought, for $8, two chicken tenders on a bed of fries, walking the length of the grandstands trying to warm myself through motion. It seemed I was walking upstream against a constant current of fans coming from the other way, buying food or beer, waiting in line to get into the bathrooms, buying hats and t-shirts, yelling into cellphones. Somehow it reminded me of a high school football game, where the game is such a small part of the entire event, with so many there to just be there-you know? To be a part of something flush with puberty’s chest-pounding eagerness, to check out chicks, to be checked out by guys, eyes bright with the excitement of it or, in the latter decades of adolescence, becoming glazed with excess.

Emerging back up trackside toward the other end, just below the Keech chair section, a look back upon the massive sprawl of Daytona’s frontstretch grandstands was almost breathtaking, a truly massive curve of fevered excitement, an architectural monstrosity which has few parallels in this flat, single-storied of a state .The stands were probably half-full – packed in the middle section and up in the highest sections of Sprint and Petty Towers, but sprinkled in the ends by Turns 4 and 1.

On Feb. 14–the day on which I hoped to complete and post this final installment, but lack of brevity forestalls that a good while longer (I’ve diddled on this post for a week after that event)–the stands were packed to the gills, as well as (on the night of the Shootout) the empty superstretch stands on the other side of the field. Even after the removal of some ten thousand seats from the superstretch (apparently to allow for wider seats, a must in this ever-more-obese present), Daytona can hold about 150 thousand of the faithful.

The problem is, even for the Great American Race on Feb. 14, there just aren’t that many faithful. Tickets for the 500 were being sold for as low as $35 – granted, down next to the track over in the superstretch, the worst possible vantage of all-but even so, the 500 wasn’t a sellout.

The reasons why are obvious and not, the way shadows are hardest under bright skies. The economy: for sure. A waning of the fan base: yes, both of the dilletant-ish “NASCAR dad” white collar wave as well as the disaffected hardcore roots, yes. Because of the corporate takeover and the promotional jargon now filling every driver’s mouth, kissing the Hand which feeds them. Because of Junebug’s lousy 2009 season. Because NASCAR has become the Wal-Mart everyone loves to hate, bitching up and down the aisle as they consume the product they can’t get enough of. It’s hard to put an exact finger on, or finger the exact beaver of cause. Because, in the words of the Dude, “I’ve got certain information, all right? Certain things have come to light. And, you know, has it ever occurred to you, that, instead of, uh, you know, running around, uh, uh, blaming me, you know, given the nature of all this new shit, you know, I-I-I-I… this could be a-a-a-a lot more, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, complex, I mean, it’s not just, it might not be just such a simple… uh, you know?”

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Empty seats said much about who wasn’t at the Bud Shootout.

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The “Big” Lebowski, the fella that often gets confused with Jeffery Lebowski-the Dude-is a fat-cat, wheelchair-ridden nabobob who lives in a giant mansion, has a trophy wife of a young woman named Bunny (a high school cheerleader on the run from Kansas who “acts” – OK, performs acts – in porn movies–and run up debts beyond her allowance in places well below the pale, where interest rates run with the sharks, ) and is a man grown exceedingly proud of his accomplishments. He looks on the Dude as a parasite of the system, unemployed and of no real use to society. But as it turns out, Big Lebowski is broke and wants to raid his own foundation for funds, contriving to steal a million dollars from it to pay ransom on what he knows to be a bogus scheme of kidnapping Bunny (she’s actually off partying in Vegas). To Big Lebowksi, the Dude is the perfect frame-up, hiring him to pay off the kidnappers with an empty briefcase, pocketing the stolen ransom money himself, and leaving the Dude out in the cold.

Now, I dunno if anyone else sees it, but to me the Big Lebowski is like NASCAR CEO Brian France, the privileged scion of racing society who’s gone broke on schemes which he seeks to blame others for their failures–namely fans. He’s courted them everywhere, brining into the NASCAR ranks, for a time, a fickle generation of NASCAR dads and moms, suburbanites and white-collar workers who poured money in to NASCAR’s coffers–for a while–because racing had become cool. It was like the crossover marriage of rock-n-roll and country music, a whole bunch of white folks getting together to avoid the ravages of heavy metal and rap and the bumpkin origins of bluegrass and folksong. Country music today sounds like NASCAR’s PR releases: shiny, smooth, paying homage to all the cry-in-yer beer sentiments at decibels that will recalibrate your teeth.

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Separated at birth, joined at the wallet: “Big” Lebowski and Brian France.

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The marketing folks at NASCAR stay on message like flies on shit, adamant that the corporation of racin’ is doing everything it can to connect with fans. The portfolio is there: NASCAR has changed the rules to make races more exciting (races which they previously rendered boring with other rules), such as the double-file restart, eliminating the bump-drafting rule and changing the green-white-checkered one. NASCAR has wooed bloggers (and positive PR) with the formation of the their NASCAR Citizen Journalist Media Corps, 28 sites (including racedriven.com, badgroove.com, dalyplanet.com, 4ever3blog.com, paddocktalk.com and catchfence.com) a “group of new media ((which)) consists of a range of professional and amateur experience covering NASCAR.” (Since Monte Dutton is a professional journalist and I edit his blog, I already get access to NASCAR’s media site.) NASCAR is present on Facebook and Twitter, is mobile-friendly and (for a subscripton fee) can feed e-mail alerts around the clock, about upcoming races or anything about your favorite driver.

All these things are true, but this observer can’t help but feel that Big Lebowski made a deal with a corporate devil (going for the big big bucks) and married a fickle trophy wife (the suburban fandom who showed up for a while). Now he’s scrambling to woo back the hardcore faithful who got sick of all the antics and stopped showing up for races.

Bottom line though, Big Lebowski France, I think, despises NASCAR’s Dude base, and all the trumpery and fanfare won’t ever bring the two together, not at least in all the profitable ways NASCAR’s ruling bodies are addled by and addicted to.

And like in most businesses these days (and nowhere more evident than in my industry of newspapering), contraction is inevitable, hopefully not to the point of disappearance, but certainly of a different revenue and pay scale. I haven’t seen a pay raise in two years; Monte had to take two unpaid week-long “furloughs” last year, an employee of one of many troubled media chains. Corporations are getting rid of their executive jets and taking a hard look at their sponsorships. (No CEO I know of, though, is taking a pay cut. If you can get this, Florida’s Blood Centers-a nonprofit org–CEO Anne Chinoda accepted a 13 percent increase in her already-bloated compensation package-now worth over $600,000 a year-and then, two months later, laid off 42 employees, citing the ill effects of the recession.)

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Way to go, Fat Cat Chinoda, CEO of Florida’s Blood Centers, taking a pay raise to well over half a million bucks a year while laying off 42 employees. A pint of viper blood for you.

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Racing has taken its own big hits. We all know how the recession made for a precarious 2009 season, with more than a thousand crew members laid off as sponsorship dollars evaporated following the blistering collapse of financial markets (due to the shenanigans of another tribe of over-paid grifters).

Fans disappeared from races, too. Last year, International Speedway Corporation,whose primary business is the ownership and management of NASCAR race tracks, reported a 95 percent drop in net income last year, down from $134.6 million in 2008 to $6.8 million, Attendance at events staged at the company’s 13 tracks fell from 3.7 million in 2008 to 3.1 million. ISC president John R. Saunders, ISC president blamed the current economic recession and its effects on high unemployment and low consumer confidence, which in turn have hurt both ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.

Drivers are taking a pay cut, if you consider that NASCAR is reducing the purse money by ten percent for every Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series event this season. The overall purse for the Bud Shootout was $1,095,439, down from a 2009 total purse of $1,217.154 (The total purse for the Daytona 500 this year is $18,550,000, down about $300,000 from last year. I looked all over for the purse awarded for the ARCA Slick Mist 200 but couldn’t find it anywhere – there might not have even been one.)

A weak economy, poor sales, bankruptcy, and the continued restructuring of Dodge has left Penske racing as the only team in NASCAR fielding Dodges and receiving factory support. Roger Penske was optimistic. “This is our eighth season with Dodge, and I have never seen the level of enthusiasm and commitment of the entire Dodge team,” he said. “We believe in Dodge, and we believe in their success; together we’re going to achieve that success on the race track and in the showroom.”

I bet you do, I thought as I munched on my chicken tenders-savoring what little warmth was fast-fleeing from their fried hides-and watching the Zac Brown’s set. Winner of the Best New Band at the 2009 Country Music Awards and Best New Artist at the 2010 Grammys, the Georgia band reminded more like AC/DC with a Southern accent than a country band playing loud guitars. In a way, they reminded me of Jason and the Scorchers, an 80s-era cowpunk band who played country tunes with punk ferocity. I saw ’em live one night–at a bowling alley, no less, if you can believe that.

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Photo: Jason and The Scorchers in 1982. They’re still around.

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Back then it was Hootenanny meets Black Flag, the mix heady and vicious and wild-akin to bull-riding, I imagined; I left there believing I could style myself away from my heavy-metal big-hair postures to gallop in greener pastures where the roots were purer and I could let those darker roots in my bleached-blonde hair grow out. A rock-n-roll desperado: I even dressed up in that style for a Halloween bash at my favorite A-circuit rock club back in ’85 or so. But then, I was just about at the end of my loud, increasingly alcoholic, big-night music road. A DUI a couple of years later put me on the path of a sobriety I’ve had an on-again, off-again, back-on again affair for the past 20 years.

On the night of Feb. 6, the Zac Brown Band was more like Willie Nelson meets Nickelback, but the harsh crossover effect was the same. Stone cold sober while around me the Budweiser was flowing like a fountain of bad-boy youth, with the Zac Brown Band hammering away at their own specie of twang und thunder, I remembered those days with a sort of half-humored, somewhat-nauseated ennui, the way one remembers an illness which you nearly couldn’t survive and are endlessly relieved you did, no longer believing I could have it all on any given night if I just played it loud and proud enough. I had a wife and home to go home to, with cats to feed and endless work yet to do to ensure safe passage, the safety of which I become less and less convinced I will be able to steer correctly through. How great it would be just to let ‘er rip, go wild, play those loud guitars again and conjoin conjugal visis with half the women in the stands just beneath the stands, believing that they needed me as much as I needed them.

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Zac Brown of the eponymous Band.

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Yes, well. Those nights are over, though apparently I still need the crossover, from the suburbs over this other side of the tracks where Jack Daniels and the Tea Party hold sway, not for love of that brew or those politics, but because the adolescent in me still needs a thrill, albeit within safe boundaries, heating my blood enough the make me savor the decibels of the band and the thunder of the cars and the curvature of Daytona’s track and its women. As they say, the South will rise again, from crowds like this on nights like this, from the next NASCAR season just about to begin, from the Zac Brown Band to my own nether regions. Bring it on.

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Getting back to a seat in Depalma tower, by 8 p.m. it was really cold in the stadium and people were getting pretty loaded. A beach ball was slugged up and down the stands for entertainment while the Sprint Cup cars were being lined up on pit row. A girl a few rows down and over was teetering all over the place where she stood, hanging on to some guy; when she bent over to pick up the beach ball her bare back revealed a black thong that had crept a good halfway up her spine. Yee-ouch. Kids who couldn’t have been older than ten, their eyes fiercely bright, vied for a chance to hit the ball, showing off their Wrestlemania-infested imagination with imagined, thick-pec prowess. The ball had a life of its own, threading together disparate clumps of fans (down this far, there was a good amount of space between people on the stands), the ball caught and smacked by the aware or simply thumping off the heads of those whose attention was elsewhere (or nowhere, lost in the foothills of drunkenness).

Watching how different fans played the ball was more entertaining than the interminable bios of drivers playing on the big monitors accompanied by more canned rock n roll on the speakers; the ball-following eye was lead to dramas which would have otherwise gone unnoticed: what was the alignment of that gaggle of young fans, boy girl girl girl boy boy boy boy, were they a sort of “Friends” contingent or a racin’ kibbutz, collective cabooses surrendered to love of Bud and Clint Bowyer? And that older couple up a ways, which one is the bigger fan, the guy hunkered down with a No. 24 ballcap low over his eyes, or the middle-aged woman in the Smoke jacket, searching pit row with binoculars? What’s with the young couple just in front of me, both in hunting camouflage, the guy explaining everything to the girl? And man, what assholes those three guys a couple rows further down, hammering away at a cooler full of Buds, yelling obscenities and booing when Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s name was called out on the monitors-obviously the thrill of Junebag had leached from their enthusiasms, though not the racin’.

All of this was told by the tumblin’ tumbleweed of that beach ball, creating an odd movie of its own as it bounced toward and was gathered up by this or that group, sailed high again on someone’s punch, coming down amid another whorl of oddity in the collective waters of the crowd. Then someone in the top row knocked that poor abused beach ball up and over the fence at the rear and it disappeared from us for good, into the concession area below. Awww. Oh well.

Without the distraction, the cold of the night seeped in further. Jesus, it’s been cold here this winter. Thanks to El Nino and the southern arctic oscillation, we here in Florida can truly fess ourselves into a season of unrelentingly un-tropic temperatures. Since January, days even in the seventies have been rare, with evening lows a good fifteen to twenty degrees before the norm, just about every night.

It’s been hard on things here. So much for touristy relief from northern cold, what with local temperatures colder than in Vancouver, where the Winter Olympic officials have had to bring in snow and artificially freeze tracks. On Feb. 17, NASA announced that cold conditions at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida have forced it to postpone the next space shuttle launch until April, mainly because shuttle hasn’t been able to be moved out to the pad, what with the threat of leakage from thruster seals due to the cold. (Anyone who remembers the Challenger explosion in January 1986 might also recall that the explosion was credited to leakage in O-rings in the shuttles fuel assembly.)

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The Challenger explodes in 1986. I watched the event from the roof of the newspaper where I worked in Orlando. I wasn’t doing so well back the, but the newspaper was, raking in huge advertising profits. Now I’m doing better-at least, I’m not digging a grave in a bottle every night that I have to crawl out of all the next day–though that newspaper isn’t, drowning in the wave of an industry’s disappearance.

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Freezes have also played havoc on Florida’s sensitive foliage ($118 million in losses to Miami-Dade ornamentals) citrus (7.4 million boxes of fruit were lost, or about $458 million) and vegetable ($250 million) industries. Farm workers have lost about $50 million in lost wages. The cold has also killed thousands of fish in shallower waters more sensitive to temperature. “A watery tomb,” was how Tom Twyford, Executive Director of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, put it. Also, about 200 manatees have died already this year, most from the cold. (The previous record for manatee deaths from cold stress was last year when there were 53.) The chill is also believed to have killed off large numbers of invaders such as Burmese and African pythons, and iguanas.

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200 Florida manatees have died from the cold, a record.

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The chill of that night lingers as I write this, now some two weeks after the event, probably because it’s still cold here in Florida. Yet our lingering winter perhaps is symbolic of the chill to the times, a creeping shadowy cold darkness into whose shadows fall signs of former, better times–the good life–one by one, so slowly that it isn’t apparent you wonder back on life a few years ago It’s not what we see, it’s the disappearances, the slowest form of extinction, almost imperceptible except when you look back and realize how much you’ve lost.

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Disappearances: Like where did Feb. 6, 2010 go? Two weeks down the road and it’s a different world altogether, Daytona 500 done, the second race at Fontana also rolled to a finish. Bud Shootout? Or was it the Busch Clash?

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When did everyone become so afraid? How did money get so tight? When did food prices get so high? When was it that I became convinced that my industry was dying? When did I sigh and accept that I may never find work again sufficient to pay our mortgage? When did all the houses in our neighborhood stop being for sale and are for now rent? How did we get to one in four houses in underwater mortgages? How did the median home price in Orlando fall from $264,000 to $103,000 in less than two years? (In January alone, median price of the area’s existing-home sales fell 14 percent in January from the month before – the biggest such drop in at least 15 years.) How did the country lose ten million jobs? And who has any ideas where we’re going to find them? How did so many people my age or younger die over the past few years? How did we get into two wars and when will loved ones stop coming back in flag-draped coffins? What was my wife whimpering about as she slept last night, slowly drowning in some free-floating nightmare? Why was I dreaming of NASCAR races in northern wilderness, those slick cars jostling over stones and stumps-or that dream on the next night of watching storms approach from over a dark lake, tornadoes forming here and there in a phalanx coming my way?

How did such a pall of anxiety fall over everything?

How did the stands at Daytona get so empty?

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In the same way that darkness and cold overtook Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 6 so that no amount of wattage from the lights – they made things bright enough – could dispell the inner chill-so it is now so difficult to find much comfort in what I must write: That what be so hard to see is what we’re least willing to. That things are changing irrevocably for the bread-and-butter American heartland, with no good outcome in sight for a long time to come. Don Peck writes in “How A New Jobless Era Will Transform America” (Atlantic Magazine, March 2010),

A slowly sinking generation: a remorseless assault on the identity of many men; the dissolution of families and the collapse of neighborhoods; a thinning veneer of national unity-the social legacies of the Great Recession are still being written, but their breadth and depth are immense. As problems go, they are enormously complex, and their solutions will be equally so.

The Great Recession: It’s a different animal than the Great Depression, a horned turtle rather than a burning hare. See how many thousands of fans have paid leisure money to watch gas-gobbling cars hurl around Daytona’s 2-1/2-mile track in some sort of belligerent wish-fulfillment, adamant to be there no matter what the dent on the bottom line? Instead of lines waiting for soup, here are stands full of the o-so-slowly impoverished. Surely half of the fans or more at Daytona that night were dealing with underwater mortgages, but there must be enough somewhere -some bit of credit left on a card perhaps, or another payment on something delayed-to make it possible to blow one or two hundred bucks on tickets, Kevin Harvick ball-caps, yards of beer in souvenir plastic silos, $4 bottles of water, $8 baskets of chicken tenders and fries.

Answers to the problems of the Great Recession are different than those of the Great Depression. Dams aren’t being built by thousands of unemployed, nor are artists being hired to paint great murals in state capitals. It’s hard to create a bounty of jobs for high-tech industries which require few and fewer mortal hands to turn their gears.

So there aren’t many answers, yet, but hopefully they will eventually come. For now, it just sucks. The government’s stimulus package may have leveled off the fall of the macro-economic illness, but that isn’t helping the tens, perhaps hundreds of millions in this country who aren’t part of the five percent who command fifty percent of the country’s wealth (like all those Sprint Cup drivers now being celebrated on a massive Budweiser Shootout Stage with fireworks and general stadium-wide adulation), who aren’t getting any relief at all from anywhere, who are out of work or being forced to take pay cuts or furloughs just to keep a job. Many folks are joining the ranks of the “new poor,” working-class folks who are facing long-term unemployment for the first time. Roughly 2.7 million jobless people will lose their unemployment check before the end of April unless Congress approves the Obama administration’s proposal to extend the payments, according to the Labor Department. That’s a lot of idle misery being added to the mix.

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America’s top five percent take a bow for the rights to earn more than just about anyone else in the grandstands of Daytona International Speedway the night of Feb. 6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. alone made over $30 million dollars in race purses and endorsement fees–and he finished 25th in the standings.

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The true nature of the Great Depression is being revealed in the appalling solutions people are coming up with so far, from Tea Party histronics on one end of the fix-that-makes-things-worse spectrum to a spike in convenience store robberies on the other. They’re both the 5 o’clock local news, Sarah Palin at Daytona and crooks in hoodies at the Circle K, jumping over civility and counters to punch away and try to haul off the goods.

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Birds of a bad feather.

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The age which is stressing the body’s politic and civitas is also stressing the body itself. In the same article Peck reports,

Till Von Wachter, an economist at Columbia University, and Daniel Sullivan, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, recently looked at mortality rates of men who had lost their jobs in Pennsylvania in the 1970’s and ’80s They found that particularly among men in their 40s and 50s, mortality rates rose markedly soon after a layoff. But regardless of age, all men were left with an elevated risk of dying in each year following their episode of unemployment, for the rest of their lives. And so, the younger the worker, the more profound effect on his lifespan: the lives of workers who had lost their job at 30, Von Wachter and Sullivan found, were shorter than those who had lost their job at 50 or 55 – and more than a year and half shorter than those who’d never lost their job at all.

People disappear, for better or ill. In Florida last year, about 6,000 missing persons reports were filed; and while most are teenaged runaways, others are simply walking away from ruined lives. Horror stories abound of mortgage company reps getting into foreclosed houses to find pets rotting where’d they’d been among all the cheap furniture and appliances bought on bad credit.

The scent of foul play has crept into too many disappearances. Haleigh Cummings, Somer Thompson, Caylee Anthony, Jessica Lundsford – what is it about little girls which brings a claw’s grip out of darkness to drag innocence away?

Older girls. too. fall into the shadows, victim of a similar rage. Just yesterday about 60 cops combed a vacant lot off south Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando (a miserable stretch through some of the city’s poorest sections, where most of the city’s topless bars and drug traffickers are found), following up on a “credible” tip looking for the body of Jennifer Kesse, who disappeared four years ago. They found nothing. When Jennifer’s parents Joyce and Drew Kesse found out officers did not find any new evidence during their search, they made a statement to the press. “We really believe that we were going to be having the answer that we didn’t want,” Joyce Kesse said. “We are not stupid, ignorant people. We are just people who care and will focus on hope. And today kind of seem to really take all that away in a millisecond. And then you’re thrown into what for four plus years you’ve hoped wouldn’t be and it didn’t pan out to be.” Mixed feelings, indeed.

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Caylee Anthony and Jennifer Kesse, both missing too long.

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The Kesses said they are still holding out hope their daughter will come home alive after disappearing four years ago. They said miracles do happen.

Perhaps miracles do in our age, but sadly we’re not that deserving a tribe – and I’m talking about the greedy, consumptive, health-unconscious, gas-guzzling, uncivil, anti-thinking, ever-racist, gun-toting, hyperbolically-patriotic, celebrity-soused, spousally abusive, larcenous, opiate-addicted and events-addled pot-underbelly of America we all can’t help but be in some bad way or another, because that’s the infected, disappearing culture we’ve become. The Great Recession is about everybody getting in some measure what they deserve, even though everyone is also being victimized by the freight of other people’s wrongs – bankers, profligate spenders, polarized Congress, terrorists – as well as wrongs of Ma Nature, like El Nino and his badass bowling partner Liam, the southern Arctic oscillation which makes everything so cold this year, at least in Florida.

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Frozen oranges in Frostproof, FL, January 2010.

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In hard times, viciousness is no respecter of gender: women aren’t the only victims of this. In an age which sees a woman Speaker of the House and female presidential candidates from both the left and right, with Danica Patrick fighting with the boys on stock car tracks and cheesecake ubermenchettas like Lindsay Vonn raking in gold medals at Vancouver with a smile revealing teeth whiter than the fabled snows of Kilimangaro, we all of that feminine primacy, we also get their shadows, rougher survival-types like Dee Dee Moore, now under arrest for the murder of Florida Lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare, who went missing several months after collecting on a $17 million dollar payout. A suspect in the case-she had approached and then befriended Shakespeare posing as an author who wanted to tell his story–Moore had given many different stories along the way to explain Shakespeare’s disappearance. To some, she said he wanted to get away to avoid child support. Or, that he was tired of dealing with the money and people who wanted it. Moore also said Shakespeare was in Jamaica being treated for AIDS. One of the last times Shakespeare was seen was in April. Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Detective Greg Thomas said he was supposed to meet his driver and assistant Judy Haggins at the Hardrock Casino in Tampa. When he didn’t show up, Moore told him Shakespeare had an altercation with an underage prostitute. But as it turned out, Moore had befriended Abraham Shakespeare (surely offering more than anything the Bible or Western literature could offer) gotten most of his money and then shot him twice in the head with a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson and then convincing someone else to bury him in her back yard. His body was eventually found there under a concrete slab.

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Hapless Florida Lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare and grifter/killer Dee Dee Moore.

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Goody for the so-good-they’re-bad girls, but what about the ole run-of-the-old-mill bad boys? In the same Atlantic Monthly article on the long-term effects of the current recession, Daly reports that among teenagers, “even the narrowest measure of unemployment stood at roughly 27 percent.” Later in the article he then ties unemployment in the young as having a direct impact on later substance abuse:

Strong evidence suggests that people who don’t find solid roots in the job market within a year or two have a particularly hard time righting themselves. In part, that’s because many of them become different-and damaged-people. Krysia Mossakowski, a sociologist with the University of Miami, has found that in young adults, long bouts of unemployment provoke long-lasting changes in behavior and mental health. “Some people say, ‘Oh well, they’re young, they’re in and out of the workforce, so unemployment shouldn’t matter much sociologically,'” Mossakowski told me. “But that isn’t true.”

Examining national longitudinal data, Mossakowski has found that people who were unemployed for long periods in their teens or early 20s are far more likely to develop a habit of heavy drinking (five or more drinks in one sitting); by the time they approach middle age. They are also more likely to develop depressive symptoms. Prior drinking behavior and psychological history do not explain these problems-they result form unemployment itself. And the problems are not limited to those who never find steady work; they show up quite strongly as well in people who are later working regularly.

Now, I’m not saying that the big Bud thirst in the stands that night was because too many people found it hard getting a job even flipping burgers at Olympic sponsor McDonalds (go figure that), but one of the surest sign of the disappearances may be in an increase in thirst, making the latter proceedings of Feb. 6 a far more drunken one. I sure saw a lot of people falling down as they were leaving after the Shootout, tumbling in the stands, falling over each other streaming out the gates, even going down while crossing International Speedway headed back to their cars.

Further evidence of a poor-pockets John Barleycorn at work has been abundant in the news of late-not that simply people drink more, but that they inflict worse harm on themselves and others:

  • On Feb 12, a Fort Myers (FL) man was arrested and charged in connection with an alcohol-related vehicle crash that killed two local nuns. He had crossed over into the oncoming lane of US-41, driving his Chevrolet Tahoe head-on into the nuns’ Toyota Prius. Michael Hickman, aged 60, was charged with manslaughter DUI with a blood-alcohol level of .228. (Hickman comes up just shy of my BAC from my ’87 DUI arrest — .23. I was driving down the wrong side of the road at 3 a.m. when the Angels of the Winter Park Police Department caught me at last.)
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  • On Feb. 13 a woman was arrested outside the Flagler County jail for DUI after being turned away from the facility-twice-after requesting a conjugal visit with an inmate. Authorities she had showed up too late for such a visit. OK, funny, but you wake up in a cell somewhere near your true love’s because a drunken voice tried to convince you needed him too damn much.
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  • On Feb. 16, Lake County attorney and prominent civic leader Bruce Duncan surrendered Friday to jail authorities after the Florida Highway Patrol charged him with DUI-manslaughter in the traffic death of a retired postal worker. Duncan, 46, of Sorrento could be sentenced to 15 years in prison if convicted of the second-degree felony stemming from an Oct. 17 accident in which a Nissan Titan pickup truck drove into the path of a motorcycle. FHP Sgt. Kim Montes said Duncan – who was returning home from Gainesville after attending the Florida Gators football game against Arkansas – had a half-empty bottle of vodka in an ice chest on the truck seat. The crash, less than half a mile from Duncan’s home, killed Herbert “Steve” Muller, 61, a retired postal worker who was returning to his home in Mount Dora after a ride with friends to Daytona Beach and Biketoberfest.
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  • And just recently, Thomas Tuer was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the June 2007 suffocation death of Deane Davis, 37. The couple had met in a bar less than a month before the death. One night, he wrestled with Davis because he thought she was too drunk to drive, holding her down until she passed out. Tuer said he tried to resuscitate Davis when he awoke in their Hollywood motel room to find her not breathing. When he could not revive her, he “freaked out,” he said. For 26 days, he lived with his girlfriend’s corpse in a closet, drinking until he blacked out, praying and begging God to bring her back. Davis’ mother, Marilyn Davis, told Tuer she had forgiven him for the death of her troubled, alcoholic daughter.

A shitty end – not just to drink yourself to death, but to have loved ones watch a son or brother or husband drink himself to death, or lose someone because a woman decided it was a good idea to get drunk and then drive off in search of love. But wildness and hopelessness are specie of the times-why not party like it’s 1999 because 2009 was twice as bad?

Now I’m not saying that everyone at Daytona on Feb. 6 was drinking that way, not at all: let’s just say that the shadows seemed deeper, the chill greater, the thirst of greater magnitude than ever. If you were just there for the racin’, you probably didn’t even notice it, but then that’s how disappearances go. Good things fade, day after day losing their hue and saturation until greyness is replaced by a crowd of crowing ills. And not all the roaring of the cars at Daytona International Speedway can put the color and the joy back in again.

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So then what? Well, if you’re like Walter in The Big Lebowski, when things go really bad, there is really just one truly good enough remedy. One night after flubbing the attempt to catch the kidnappers at the point of exchange, having tumbled from the Dude’s car in a way that the Uzi he’s packing goes off and shoots up the rear of the Dude’s car, causing the Dude to careen and smash into a light pole while the kidnappers roar off in anger on their motorcycles, payoff fucked up, fate of the woman they believe to have been kidnapped swinging precariously toward the worst outcome, Walter limps over to the Dude who’s standing in shock outside his car. As the two of them review the scene of their disastrous fuckup, Walter wipes his nose with a sleeve, sighs and then utters the words which italicize our best shot at dealing with the dust-bowl of former plenty which is our Great Recession.

“Fuck it. Let’s go bowling.”

And bowl they do, as on Feb. 6 some fifty or sixty thousand fans went racin’, devouring hot dogs and Budweisers with the same intensity that they consumed the roar of the high-banked track, drowning out, for one night at least, the nagging million particulars of loss which were circling outside Daytona International Speedway, waiting for us all to come back out.

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At the end of The Big Lebowski, somehow the Dude has managed his way through the minefield of shit thrown at him by 1991, avoiding annihilation by Saddam Hussein, the nihilist ex-synth band who had faked the kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski, the clutches of famed pornographer and prominent local citizen Jackie Treehorn and his goons, the threats of fake millionaire “Big” Lebowski, the seminal clutches of Maude Lebowski, and the loss of his bowling partner Donny to a heart attack. The Dude avoids paying the rent for another day, or another night of bowling. Up at the bar the Dude and the Stranger meet for one last time, El Duderino drinking his trademark White Russian and the Stranger nursing a bottled sasparilla. The Stranger asks him how he got through everything. “Yeah, well. The Dude abides,” says the Dude–who, by the way, is indeterminately in his 30’s and has never had job–and he walks off back to his bowling game.

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The Dude and the Stranger at the bar. Sometimes the bar eats you, but sometimes–thank Gawd–you get to eat the bar.

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The Stranger looks at us through the camera. He’s hard-tackle and calloused and gruff, suggesting many years of toil on vast ranches in brutal Wyoming weather. “The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals.”

So, like Walter, we sigh. Fuck it. Let’s go racin’.

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And like the Dude, we abide. Takin’ er easy.

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What else can we do?

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One response to “Borne Under a Bad Sign, finale: Despite the Disappearances, the Dude of NASCAR abides

  1. Your blog could’ve been titled “How Life Imitates the Daytona 500,” paraphrasing to the Thomas Boswell book on baseball. Very cosmic. My faith was leaping.

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