Kentucky Meat Shower #26: Ceaseless Tides and Uneven Development
the "compass" of VCU's shafer court. a plaza leading to James Branch Cabbell library.
photograph by Christopher Sloce

Kentucky Meat Shower #26 “Ceaseless Tides and Uneven Development” is the second of three issues in the “A Prophet of His Own” arc. If you are curious about what I mean by “arc”, you can read here. The first part of the trilogy is posted here

What is your name.

Christopher Sloce.

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We will begin by summing up the experience in ten or less words.

Proof that I could survive but not that I would thrive.

In what way was it proof that you could survive but not that you would thrive?

I should point out that, sometimes, the appearance of thriving is the form surviving takes.

Going into the summer of 2012 I had never felt like more of a name. I was going to be directing and writing a one-act play. That spring one of my fancy friends and I wrote a screenplay for this godawful Brick style noir that showcased the Fredericksburg indie rock scene. I was one of the founding members of a chapter of Phi Kappa Psi at VCU. I was about a semester removed from being the editor of our literary magazine in my estimation. I had just published “Christopher Sloce Has A Cold”, which is the worst thing I’ve ever written, but it was decent marketing, I guess, for what I was trying to do. I think I thought it was my “Who Am I (What’s My Name)”. I also made my first D. Almost my first two, if not for some miracles in a linguistics class.

These were the sort of things that mattered to me. Sort of accumulating these baubles, like a jackdaw. It’s what I wanted to do, so there I went.  Most of it centered around art, and accumulating a vision of art and putting on for good work, but also being around with people I could have a good time with. I think I wanted to be known, because to me being known meant being read, but also to be known. I just wanted what I thought the college experience was, and to do that college experience to the fullest. I thought it was like debuting into the middle class and being a person to know and watch.  And the D threatened all that. I wouldn’t let that happen again.

So what did survival look like?

Survival looked like a lot of late nights. You go to class at nine after going to bed at three. You were up to three because you were visiting friends and you can’t sleep right anyway. Or you and your best friend were going over stuff with the play festival. Or you’re reading. It’s not like I can remember it. I’m telling you what I can. All those late nights that fucked with my memory.

Survival looked like a lot of late nights. You go to class at nine after going to bed at three. You were up to three because you were visiting friends and you can’t sleep right anyway. Or you and your best friend were going over stuff with the play festival. Or you’re reading. It’s not like I can remember it. I’m telling you what I can. All those late nights that fucked with my memory.

I went into college under the understanding that I would attempt to solidify my entry into the middle class. The best way to do that was to make connections. The best way to make connections was to fraternize, wherever I could, and keep about a billion balls up into the air. I just thought I was living my life, but what I was really trying to do was prove my worth so I could have a degree of comfort. And to me, because of the prevailing ideas we all had about work at the time, I did see the value of being in all these places.  It was like primitive accumulation for an enriched middle class life. That’s what I had my eyes towards. And if that took some late nights, so be it.

This might all be a fancy way of calling myself an insomniac. But it was driven by more than “I can’t sleep”. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t relax. My entire future was mortgaged on some grades, on knowing people, on seeing people, on being seeing and known, on meeting actors and writers, on building bonds with sororities (which I had a ton of interest in), fraternities where our fraternity saw fit (couldn’t have paid me to care), making lit magazine meetings to make sure we put out good work. This stuff all sounds like I’m Max Fisher complaining about being president of the Rushmore Beekeepers club, but in a college setting, because we live in capitalism, all this stuff runs like small businesses, and even college students are subject to the Braudelian law of the jungle.

The university is a business that makes successful people and people to strive for success. You’re the product. You walk out of college with your skills like a Barbie’s playset. Provided you’re not one of the ones that didn’t make it through, the ones with defects near the end they put in a pile, the ones that don’t make it through testing, that is the end goal. You can go to your new home, or you can get melted down into plastic. Testing isn’t an accidental metaphor. They’re making sure you’re up to code. And if you’re not up to code, they can’t send you out there. Your show doesn’t have to go on. Successful people don’t have a tech week. Just murder on the mind.

Speaking of tech week, how was theater a strain on you?

The production itself had some issues and it had a time commitment. It was tech week that got to me. In rehearsal, I was in a pretty siloed environment where it was me, the actors, the stage manager, and my best friend. What happened is, during tech week, everybody had to start spending time with each other. I was the only person who didn’t wind up in a fight that week, and a lot of it had to do with my insistence on reading about Buddhism and interacting with as few people as possible once my one-act was over.

All the energy I put towards the play was energy that was coming away from school, at least during tech week. I missed just over the amount of classes I could in my Shakespeare class and when I went to go pitch my final paper, I sat there with a great deal of gravity and apologized to this crusty, traditional professor who looked a little like a turtle. He got very close to me and went: “Are you familiar with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?”

You think these would be the sort of things that would point towards my feeling that things would be okay, but nothing really gave me any quietude. I just kept feeling like something bad would happen and it took all my energy to stop it.

Did something bad happen?

I happened.

Did something bad happen?

I don’t know why that’s being asked twice. I said I happened. That is as much as I can speak to.

What happened?

During finals week I moved into the library. I had three papers due, so I did the cost/benefit of all nighters. The cost was some nights of good sleep. The benefit was not having to leave Richmond.

Why would you leave Richmond?

Because college was expensive and it was going to be a lot harder to convince anybody I needed to stay if I was fucking up left and right. And I had done just that last semester when I pulled a D in a 19th century literature class, despite my best efforts. The logic followed: if enjoying myself keeps me from my best efforts in school, then I’d lose that if it allowed me to stay in school. After all, losing my social life was the biggest existential fear of leaving Richmond.

Why would you lose your social life?

Your best friends in Richmond are not going to be your best friends once you’re out of town. You have to be two different people already, and do you really think you’re going to be slipping onto phone calls as the same person who’s going to hang out in a trailer and drink until you build a beeramid?

So I moved into the library and worked on all three of my papers around the clock. I put a change of clothes and necessities (Vienna sausage, my books, headphones, a comforter)  in my red and blue Tommy Hilfiger bag.  I wore layers, too. It was freezing. I say that because I may have had a pillow but what’s more likely is I took off my cable knit cricket sweaters, put that inside my bag and shoved that under my head.

What were the three papers?

1. A paper on the history of intellectual development in the United States. It was about the performances of Shakespeare figuring in western expansion, for a history class.

2. A paper for my Shakespeare class. I chose to write about Orson Welles’s Othello. I defended Orson Welles’s performance as Othello because it’d be a great performance if it wasn’t obviously Orson Welles in grease paint. My crusty, trad professor gave me an A.

3. A paper on Mrs. Dalloway’s role in her own party, as the domestic party giver.

What made the final piece such a task?

I made an A on the paper. I made a C in the class. You can extrapolate from here how in over my head I was. It was a seminar level English course, and I had just busted my ass for a D in a class that was less strenuous.

It was the paper I finished last, but I was working on it the entire time, because I kept getting stuck and working on the others instead. It was the first time something I was writing felt beyond my grasp, like I was just babbling vague impressions. I kept working my way through thickets of my argument, trying my damnedest to get a B. And I felt that the only way I was going to do it was by eschewing any comfort, any sort of rest, anything. I was completely committed to an argument about Mrs. Dalloway I didn’t fully understand.

And what I started noticing is it was only me that was showing the full madness of finals week. Other people went home. I think I got the picture when I heard stories about people taking pictures of me in the library. But I laughed. If anybody had caught me sleeping on the floor I would have rolled out of the floor, dusted the carpet lint off of me, staggered to the bathroom, splashed water on my face, spread my arms out wide, tell myself it’s showtime, and stumble back out to the desk to fight with Mrs. Dalloway a little more. But what my erstwhile paparazzi really caught a haggard absence of color when the footlights hit my face

At some point a catechism got involved. My memory escapes me here. It must have been too many nights and too many mornings listening to Main Attrakionz and walking to get bagels at Einsteins, maybe going home to catch a shower–I at least had thought this through enough to know I needed to shower–and then sitting back down at a desk. I’d take naps where I could get them, when the feeling of work got to be too much: going under the desk and pulling an office chair to me close enough so that people didn’t see me, leaving a memento of some kind on the desk so people knew not to roll back the stone. Even my moments of rest fed into the need to stay to finish the paper. I slept the sleep of drained batteries, not passing out so much as the winding key on my back finally reaching the end of its winding, and those periods of sleep were an attempt to crank the key to its furthest point once again and then let myself go.

At some point in my discussion of Mrs. Dalloway, the notion struck me that some of the language in the inner monologue was like a catechism. This was likely for no other reason than I knew, but had not read, the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, where Bloom and Daedalus’s interaction in Bloom’s apartment takes the form of a catechism, their various rummagings taking on the biblical cant of the devout Irishman viewing the meeting of the Father and the Son in a little apartment late at night. So my thought process was that because they were both modernist books, it’s possible that the language of the catechism may be in Virginia Woolf’s book.

I walked off the quiet floor where I was working–I didn’t really know the rules on headphones on the silent floor, and I didn’t really think sleeping on the floor would be taken too kindly up there, either– and onto the first floor where they kept the reference books. I walked into the aisle and looked. Somebody in a cricket sweater was there, their hair thick and matted. Their red beanie was atop their head. And they spun around to see me.

And there I was, trying to find a catechism. Somehow, I had already beaten myself there, if there was me. I realized I, or this me, was still there, looking puffier and skin smalmed with neglect, unshaven in some attempt to grow a beard. The me’s fingers kept moving across the books, tracing the call numbers. I blinked and was still there. He turned around to see me, this version of myself. We looked at each other. Even more tired than I could imagine, now he was something different. As I looked at him, my feeling wasn’t that he was an unholy terror, not even bad looking. Instead there was more disturbance in the absence; nothing was inside of that husk but an interior silence.

Out of respect I left. I stepped out into the winter air. Something about cold air is cleansing: like my quick sink baths I followed with my jazz hands. But I was cold and felt damp, standing in the Compass, the big central hub of VCU’s campus, probably from the shock.

As I stood out there, I didn’t know what I should do. Go in, go home or come back tomorrow. It wasn’t something I was prepared for.  And then I thought about it: maybe they’re the one I should have doing all that work. Maybe I should let whoever that me was do all the work. They’re clearly already a denizen of that library. But who knows. Maybe he would do the work wrong, maybe he would have a different name. I couldn’t risk it. I walked back into the library and walked right back to an empty reference section. Finally the catechism was there, and asking: What is your name


a crane hit by the sun above trees and houses on Richmond's franklin street.
photograph by Christopher Sloce

Cities exist physically as a collection of buildings and people. But no city is alike: every city will have its attitudes and specific practices that make it that specific city. A city also has a projected image, both one it wants to project and the one projected whether it likes it or not. And then there’s the level of interpretation you bring to a city as you live inside it. Whether we know it or not, everybody is constantly in the process of interpreting their city or town’s buildings, attitudes, practices, and denizens as they live inside it, doing all of the things that constitute a life. This practice extends to neighborhoods as well. The culture of a neighborhood is an interpretation of the city: of its overarching sense of itself, of its projected images both intentional and unintentional, of its people in the neighborhood and not of that neighborhood (with all the good and bad that comes with that). In that sense, the campus of VCU is a neighborhood: students live, work, go to class, and eat there, and we can’t wrest the interpretative practice that students do from them. They are of the city as well.

But: VCU’s interpretation of Richmond and somewhere like Carver’s could not differ more. Though the current day understanding of Carver as a student village wasn’t always the case, even as of a few years ago, the neighborhood maintains some sense of identity different than VCU. Carver was clearly never built for students: that much is obvious by the industrial life once situated there. As it’s deindustrialized, it’s found a second life as a working class neighborhood for the new nomadic order of downwardly mobile children of the middle class, bunching together like periphyton on felled logs and rocks.

The VCU interpretation thrives where the city’s commercial and industrial life is decomposing. The life and death cycle of a neighborhood is all to its advantage–instead of signs of economic disarray, they’re signs of all being right in the economic order.

In the husks of old civic life new lives can be housed. Now sainted and designated as having historical value, it becomes reinvigorated and revitalized. VCU’s value is not only as an institute of higher learning but as a civic alchemist whose knowledge extends into necromantic arts. By communing with the past, they are able to see the secret life the city has always wanted to lead and resurrect it to the wishes only they hear. Then what occurs is a transmutation of history: facts vaporized and collecting inside of an alembic and sold to smalm the same processes that define any city’s economic life: the battle to capture land by planting improvements like flags.

The VCU interpretation sees Richmond as a vessel for VCU. Everything that creates the structure of Richmond’s habitat is an inherently empty form that must be populated, wrested from the narrative of the city, and put through the alchemical practices that define its craft. And the VCU interpretation of Richmond is not one that only is practiced by the university, but by anybody who boosts the natural advantage conferred by the university for their own gain. What’s created is space for students: restaurants students would want to go to, places students can use. But school is not always in session, and left behind are empty dorms and the bright colors of new restaurant money. The value is found elsewhere: in the captured, improved land for RVA boosters to point to about how Richmond is on the up and up. This makes students instruments of something they did not sign up for. No longer just searching for knowledge, they are part of the tides that lap up life in their wake.

At the edge of Monroe Park is Gladding Residence Center, where I stayed during my time at VCU. The Center included 3 dorms: GRC 1 for upper classmen, GRC 3 as a mixed environment, and GRC 2 for freshman. Originally, it was a brick establishment with a courtyard. What it is now is a large apartment building, full of suites with common the new VCU brutalist style: completely renovated, now with the professional DCian gray of luxury housing apartments. Gladding Residence Center always had the air of an enclosed, sterile environment: a series of dorms with interior courtyards, kremlins guarded by alliances of security irregulars and hired students acting as doormen to make sure badges get swiped. Now there is not even a courtyard, but a small walkway leading to the other dorms.

Before, you were in the city, where VCU was situated. The city has accelerated to the point that VCU’s campus is no longer integrated in the city, but a village that operates like a resort. Operating like a small liberal arts Vatican, complete with its own police force, driving through this small colony feels like entering a specific eddy. It is, of course, still of our reality, as VCU does not have different laws than the city of Richmond, but rather a different makeup,  an interpretation of the city’s surrounding reality, but one with its own center of gravity that pulls us all inward.

The center may find itself in Monroe Park. Standing at Gladding Residence Center at night I often looked off into the oceanic dark when the sun went down. Not long after I left the park was closed off and renovated. There was a displacement–now another public space gone. One area of concern is where the homeless would go, and not one that was thought about. The revision of Monroe Park was that it should find itself a safe place for students. But the interpretation of what a student can do, what they are, and the world they find themselves in is an infantilizing one, one where they are in a village separated, unable to react or interact with the world around them, and one where they are only part of the VCU city, ever ebbing, waves ever crashing.

All of that and the biggest change: they opened up a coffee shop in the center of Monroe.

Grace Street used to be the boundary. Stepping over, you spilled from the yellow-black bosom of VCU into the city. While Broad Street’s 700-800 blocks had cheap apartment housing for students and the presence of the media center, everything else on Grace Street was a conscious spot of annexation. One only needs to view the situation across the blocks of what used to be there. In 2010, a few stores up from Strange Matter was Exile, a punk thrift store that sold me my copy of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and an authentic navy pea coat I never could get the glue stain out of. There was an African goods shop that once scared a Civil War obsessive I knew in college so much he threw up the cross as he left. The African goods store got bought by the school. Exile became Red Eye Cookies, another cookie delivery place. There was also Sahara’s.

I have no actual nostalgia for Sahara’s. I never went there; it had the vaguest of a bad reputation. What it looked like was a Pizza Hut, with a vague Middle Eastern scene painted on the sign. Sahara’s was a place you passed by to get to somewhere else on Broad, probably drunk. Which is unfortunate for Sahara’s: that this was the case during the hookah fad of the early 2010s means they were missing out on the best time in history to be a hookah place near campus. VCU students who wanted hookah went to Aladdin’s, a spot that combined constantly blaring Gulf dance pop and had cushions on the floor like a key party.

Saharas was purchased by VCU. What sits there now is a sidewalk to get onto Franklin Street, a street that we can broadly consider campus. Sahara’s may have not had much cultural value, but a sidewalk has value to only take you to places. And where it leads now is a small corridor of fast casual dining.

There was always a trio of restaurants (a Chipotle, a Panera, and something that escapes me) on the Laurel Corridor that belong to the general sense of fast casual. However, in 2011 with the installation of the Laurel Food Court with new stalwarts like Raising Cane’s, IHOP, and a generic salad bar, the definition for that to not be a conscious extension of campus went moot. In following years, Little Mexico’s Burrito Chop, a small taco bar that ran a dollar taco deal on Saturdays would be gone and empty. At that point, the sort of family friendly dining fare fit for a campus had taken over the corridor. Everything after this point, like a Noodles and Company and the addition of a Panda Express near the VCU Barnes and Noble fit this pattern. Rather than accumulation of property, they exist as a development of the campus concept, pure annexation. If student housing is there, it exists as an extension of campus and its cultural mores. And if the resort and the colony we call campus had a themed dish, it would be a Chipotle burrito bowl.

A Chipotle burrito bowl is the worst food readily available at the snap of a finger in America. Things can be variably worse, but the Chipotle burrito bowl is a disaster from conception to reality. Dumping cooked meat, vegetables and salsa into a bowl isn’t appetizing–there’s a reason that even the most Americanized Tex-Mex places don’t put them on the menu, and a reason it was designed with a tortilla– but once you factor in how each individual part is going to affect what you’re eating, it becomes an array of slop. Rolling a burrito up allows a degree of harmony in the food, meaning that with each bite you take, you are getting the interplay of everything you combined to get your burrito. When you put it all in a bowl, instead you’re leaving all of the mercy in the world to your fork, which, if it’s a disposable one from Chipotle, have fun with that. Instead of getting the panoply of food the burrito itself allows for, you’re getting a few spare chunks of each item you’ve put into this dish, which are designed to be eaten at roughly the same time. Going at a burrito piecemeal would be like if you dumped the entirety of a sandwich in a bowl and used a fork and a folded up piece of bread to eat it.

But the burrito bowl lives on. It exemplifies conscious eating, existing as a health-conscious, gluten-free, low carb alternative. It may make more sense to judge the burrito bowl existing as a superfood optimized towards certain results. When I first posited my theory about the Chipotle burrito bowl to my roommate, his response was his friend who did personal training said the burrito bowls were good for protein-maxing. My response was “Protein-maxing? What the fuck am I, a horse?”

There is not a food that more readily resembles the inner lives of the go-go-go Richmond developers and the life they believe is perfect for students (and by that logic, everyone) than putting a bunch of poorly seasoned meat in a paper bowl with Whole Foods vegetables (or veggies, if you’re a dickhead). It’s a meal for lanyard wearers who think an infinitesimal increase in body fat will render them forever unfuckable. These restaurants, finer than fast food but still far from God, signal something more than boring eating: boring lives.

On The Fall’s first album, Dragnet, Mark E. Smith transformed William Blake’s declaration that “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create,” into a bit of paranoid bitters and speed grandiloquence: “I must create a new regime/Or live by another man’s/Before the moon falls/I must create a new scheme/And get out of others’ hands/Before the moon falls”. William Blake’s vision coincided with the tumult around the French Revolution, where suddenly citizenship had a radical component. When Blake writes, “enslaved”, while he may not have ever been shipped off into chattel slavery, but slavery was a social reality of his time with even producing art for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Stedman’s Narrative became a primary source for English abolitionists attempting to explain the horrors of slavery, his artwork no doubt aiding in their attempts.

But in Smith’s age, there are “regimes” and “hands”, which can only be responded to with further regimes and schemes. Though the primary demand may look like “the creation of a regime”, what is stripped away from the artifice of the regime is the simple scheme. Schemes are mechanical no matter how we discuss them. It’s only hacky to use the dictionary at the beginning of the essay, so let’s turn to Webster’s New World College Dictionary where a few definitions of “scheme” follow (scheme’s a surprisingly complex word):

  1. a carefully arranged and systematic program of action for attaining some object or end
  2. a secret or underhanded plan or plot
  3. a visionary plan or project

All three of these definitions are tributaries of the first. Plans, visionary or underhanded, require a plot. They always require careful arrangement and systematic programming to obtain an object or end. Smith recognizes that and sees a dog-eat-dog arrangement, where his scheme must win out. And the environment of Smith’s Manchester was closer to dark Satanic mills than Jerusalem. But after a point in recognizing the scheme behind you, maybe Jerusalem was the dark Satanic mills all along.

Smith’s treatment of Blake’s vision is a perversion less than a negation. Blake’s transformation of Christianity reverted to Christianity’s earlier gnostic myths. What Smith did is transform all the hallmarks of north English working class culture into odder currents; discarded superstitions were side by side with pulp sci-fi and horror, existential and occult literature sold at dusty bookshops like the setting of a Ramsey Campbell story.

One intersection of many between Blake and Smith is cheap publishing. Radical ideas in Blake’s time were spread by pamphlet, and censored there too. Now, printing is cheaper than ever. Smith draws from  two versions of cheap mass produced literature: the pulp literature (science fiction and horror, most specifically) as well as flyers and advertisements.

This connection gets spelled out in Perverted By Language’s “Eat Y’self Fitter”. Advertising is a pervert’s language: used to cajole, flatter, and seduce, and the title of this song is no different. Taken from an ad for an All-Bran breakfast cereal, the song’s a working class Mancunian’s stations of the cross, with a hippie bartender playing Pontius Pilate. The song’s chorus takes the form of a call and response. Smith’s character poses a question and the band in return responds “Eat Y’self Fitter!” even when the question isn’t about health (in fact, it’s very rarely about health, health is a very good moral injuction). The only time eating anything comes up is in the Smith character’s final vision of England, where people are eating each other, the Braudelian “law of the jungle” turned into a comic book fear of cannibals.

But there’s a catch: the more the phrase “eat yourself fitter” is said, the more bizarre of a phrase it becomes. Like repeating your name in a mirror to the point it only becomes a car wreck of syllables, the repetition of the phrase only serves to make the inherent absurdity apparent. The world we’re put in is not healthy, so it is impossible to eat ourselves fitter. Our pathways all lead to corridors full of half solutions, plopped in bowls and their names shouted back to us ad infinitum, until that final moment we drop pretense and make the world a jungle floor, led by intoxicating slogans. In a world of Chipotles, it is impossible to eat yourself fitter.