Michael Chabon once penned (or keyed) an essay entitled Subterranean. It appeared in a book, which was a collection of essays titled Manhood for Amateurs.
Hilariously, this book was my introduction to Chabon’s writing. Despite the fact that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction waaaaay back in 2001, I was oblivious. His prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was a mystery to me on that fateful lunch hour (and a half) a few years back when I randomly plucked the CD audiobook of Manhood for Amateurs off the shelves at the Maple Grove Library.
Since then, Chabon has become one of my favorite authors. He’s top 5 along with David Foster Wallace, John Irving, Michael Pollan, and Russell Brand (yes, that Russell Brand). He’s one of the authors whose style I try to emulate without actually trying to imitate. I’ve tried to imitate David Foster Wallace, but GFL on that path to futility.
Anyway, in Chabon’s essay Subterranean, despite nearly drowning in his grandparent’s basement during a particularly torrential rainstorm, he pens the seminal defense of the lowly underground hideout. For my money, this is the first point in literature where the basement, rife with all its weird smells, darkness/dankness, and spiders is elevated to the status it so richly deserves: quintessential underground workshop.
Where else can you be six feet under and still thrive?
Chabon’s essay stuck with me for a very long time—like still. A big part of my first novel, which comes out after the novel I just finished, hinges on the basement almighty. I was hip with the basement vibe long before Chabon articulated it in the pristine manner for which he’s legendary.
In a bananas meta moment, I referenced him and his essay in an Instagram post of my basement—he actually liked the post! I ain’t gonna lie, it was a thrill—it blew up my skirt a lot!
Without bogging this down any further with backstory, I’ll go ahead and bog it down a bit further. After my divorce, I lived in my mother’s basement for a spell. Actually, my tiny kiddos and I lived in her basement for five years. As much as it was a major defeat for 38-year-old me, my two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter have fond memories of their five year sentence in Grandma’s dungeon. This amuses me to no end. My daughter still says things like, “I loved living in Grandma’s house.”
After five years in purgatory, I had finally saved enough (and received a fair amount of assistance) to buy my own house (again). Needless to say, it was a fixer-upper extraordinaire. Thankfully, my only sibling is a contractor and agreed to undertake the majority of the colossal rehab project. Thankfully, my wifey is a pro photog with keen eye for design and agreed to pick out all of the finishes and fixtures. From that point, the three of us vacillated between intense admiration and intense disdain for each other depending on the day. It was a long process (nearly two years).
DISCLAIMER: do not buy a fixer-upper with your new spouse and proceed to enlist your sibling do the up fixing. On the surface, this seems like a great opportunity to offset the cost with a little sweat equity. But trust me, once you are knuckle deep in mummified mouse carcasses piled up behind the vintage dishwasher you are extricating, so that you can heave it into the 30-yard dumpster parked in your driveway on a blistering-cold/dreary-as-fuck Minnesota February morning, you’ll be questioning every decision you’ve ever made in your entire lifetime. You’ll have occasion (many) to question your sanity as well. This will ultimately be no ones fault, but it will be inevitable.
I offer this analogy—think of how hard you have to negotiate with yourself to just get out of bed on a Sunday morning after an uproarious Saturday night of imbibing, just so that you can push play on the coffee maker, just so that you can start to begin to resemble a human again. Multiply that by an entire home gut job/redo and two additional humans.
They—whoever the hell they are—say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is spectacular bullshit. It’s more like, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will scar you for life, haunt your dreams, and give you PTSD. But naught for nothing, as it will give you pause if you ever contemplate something similarly fucking idiotic ever again.”
Take my word for it—just don’t do it!
Mercifully, the main level and upper level were eventually completed. The kids and I moved out of Grandma’s basement into our new home. It was a red letter day. We moved furniture up from my wife’s house in ATL (that’s an entirely different novel). And with the help of friends, family, and my beloved wifey, we made a home out of a zombie mouse apocalypse.
I’m still grateful for everyone who pitched in to make this a reality. There was no shortage of cool human beings who made this impossible undertaking possible. I’d like to take a moment to thank them all again—you know who you are. None of this would have been possible without y’all.
While the main level and upper level of our new pad were perfectly lovely, the basement resembled the garbage disposal scene from Star Wars where Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy are simultaneously up to their tits in garbage while being hunted by some one-eyed snake thing as the walls literally close in on them. What lay just below our living room was something similar.
And while I had a village helping us get into the house, rehabbing the lowly basement fell to me, myself, and moi. I actually enlisted the kiddos—then seven and nine—in the demolition process.
Famously, in one 30-minute span of questionable parenting, Karli stepped on a 2×4. A protruding rusty nail pierced her tiny shoe and tiny foot drawing a copious amount of blood. After that minor emergency was abated and she was back on her foot, she swung her 5 LB mallet into a piece of Sheetrock so swiftly that it came down on Nate’s head.
At that point, I broke up the band and completed the rest of the demo as a solo artist.
Here is what the demo looked like in progress. There was a single functional outlet in the basement at this point, and it was dangling from the celling like in some horror movie.
Here is some of the cool shit, literally, I found during the demo…
To add insult to injury, at points during the demo process, there would be angry wasps dive-bombing me. In classic Chuck Donley fashion, as I was swatting at them with my gloved hands, I would mutter angrily about, “The damn kids leaving the front door open.” Eventually, I’d find a wasps nest glued between two joists in the storage room, because there was a hole in the foundation—of course there was! There were actually multiple holes, but I’d discover the rest of them later. No wonder there were malevolent wasps constantly trying to end my life.
Sorry kids…not your fault.
This is what the basement looked like just after I pulled the last nail out of the celling joists and the dumpster trailer was dropped in the driveway…
Here is the dumpster/trailer with everything I hauled up from the basement, one garbage can at a time…
And after I went through the space with a fine-toothed shop vac, it looked like this…
There are moments in a lifetime where you feel good—no, fucking great—about yourself. This photo was captured on a Friday afternoon/night in early summer 2015 after “the final clean out” was complete. I felt like Jack Dawson standing on the bow of the Titanic with the wind in my hair yelling, “I’m the king of the world!” In my lackluster version, I sat alone on the fireplace hearth and quietly drank a celebratory Moosehead. The kids hadn’t started drinking yet.
As time passed, and I chipped off one project after another, the scariest space in the house started to look less horror show and more monochromatic insane asylum—a serious improvement!
Eventually, after the electrical work was completed, and the last coat of paint was slathered on whatever needed more paint, we were ready to move the stereo into the basement.
Without music life would be a mistake.Friedrich Nietzsche
Before going any further, we had to have music. This was the chief goal of the basement project. And once a reliable HiFi system was installed and records were shelved, our grandiose fanciful flight began.
While my son gratefully spearheaded the procurement of modern gaming artifacts, Karli and I focused on capturing gewgaws that struck a delicate balance between vintage/groovy and audacious/unnecessary. For nearly a half-decade, we’ve thrifted the western suburbs of the greater Minneapolis area in an effort to acquire immortality. And we’ve acquired quite a bit. I cherish each and every one of these too-numerous afternoons spent canvassing the city and pouring over other people’s crap with my redheaded co-pilot.
It wasn’t a bad run…
It ebbs, flows, and shape-shifts from weekend to weekend, but we’ve largely achieved our goal of curating “the world’s most meticulously cluttered basement”. It’s basically in the Smithsonian state in which it will remain until the kiddos head off to college and the larger adventures this life has to offer. Eventually, I’m destined to migrate south.
They also say, “To the victor goes the spoils.” We’ve been #winning every second we’ve spent down here—I guess that makes us the victor(s)!
When the time comes—as it inevitably does—we’ll split it up, pack it up, and spread it to the four winds. Accordingly, some spoils will go with Nate-o, some will tag along with K, some will migrate south with me, and some will be graciously returned to the places that recycle these majestic relics. Other lucky souls can then discover these artifacts just as we once did. And that’s OK.
Nothing is forever, except acne.
But as it sits right now, in all of it’s glory, I want to provide a virtual tour. I want this space to be immortalized in the same spirit that Michael Chabon immortalized his grandparents basement. Only I’m doing my tribute with visual aids.
Basements = essential + immortal. So without further adieu…
The door at the top of the staircase is innocuous. It’s situated across from the main-level powder room, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think it was the door to the broom closet. But when you open it, it ain’t no broom closet.
The space is divided nearly in half by “The Great Wall of Stairs”. The kids hang a right at the landing, and yours truly hangs a left. While their half is a rectangle, my half is “L” shaped due to furnaces, water hearers, and other necessary basement appliances.
Let me begin with their space, specifically “Karli’s Korner”…
Her chandelier is courtesy of the aforementioned grandma. It previously hung in her office at the salon she ran like a gangster for 55+ years. When she was clearing out her things, Grandma asked if we wanted it. We both knew exactly how to answer that question.
Another day, we decided that no self-respecting basement is sans hammock. This one was procured on a particularly fruitful thrifting expedition; the color was perfection. Karli spends copious amounts of time literally hanging out, eating popcorn, and contemplating the existential injustices of high school as she stares at the celling joists. She is unfortunately stuck with the beer and Mtn. Dew fridge on her end, but I tried to integrate it into her desk. She assured me that, “It’s no big deal.”
Nate-o commandeered the other end. He games, a lot, and always. His rig is set amid a backdrop of the largest Nerf Gun collection this side of the Toys “R” Us secret storage compound that is laying dormant until the juggernaut of fun announces it triumphant return. We couldn’t think of anything better to cover the walls with, so we kept requisitioning more firearms until the wall was nearly covered. It seems to feng & shui righetously. At least we got options when the zombie apocalypse descends upon humanity.
Opposite Nate, but still in his realm, is the retro wall of retro gaming and other retroness. A vintage green gaming chair faces off against a wall of 13″ Sony Trinitrons, VCRs, handheld video games, and other superfluous bullshit. I often climb into the retro gaming chair and we game back-to-back.
His gaming handle is: MyFriendNinja. His gaming buddies have bestowed upon me the handle: FatherNinja. When I’m sputtering profanities at my tiny TV during a particularly intense game of Mappy, his friends will ask, “Do we hear FatherNinja?”
As I transition back to my half, the wall o’ 8 tracks eyes me with disdain…they want more attention.
As I pass from their space into my space, the view is simply breathtaking…
Starting at the command center, this is actually where I am sitting as I type this right now. Crazy, right? I am an ordained Dudeist Priest of some repute. My Dudeism shrine is on the second shelf to the left. Abide…just abide. That Panasonic clock radio TV right in the middle of everything actually works. As this photo was snapped, an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation was playing in glorious B&W.
Flanking me, and directly behind me is Blockbuster Plymouth. The OG Blockbuster Plymouth closed years ago, but its spirit lives on in my lair. Despite the fact that I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, there is always a movie screening on the crazy red Seiki TV. Just like Blockbuster back in the day, there is always a little visual noise “now playing”. I have approximately 1,200 “slabs” as the cool kidz say.
Just around the corner from Blockbuster Plymouth is my LP collection. There is an entire other blog devoted to this obvious obsession. Since I started mining the thrift store LP bins a decade ago, I’ve discovered approximately 6,500 golden musical platters. I have resigned myself to the fact that I cannot listen to them all in this lifetime. Maybe in the next, tho.
Buttressing the LPs are the compact cassettes…all 1,000 of them. I was ejected into this realm in 1972. Hence, I was in the unique position to watch all of the various musical mediums come and go.
As a kid, I listened to my dad’s Beach Boys, Dr. Hook, and Juice Newton vinyl LPs on the home HiFi. Cruising around town in the backseat sofa of our Chrysler Town & Country family truckster, I was subjected to an endless rotation of 8 track tapes featuring easy listening legends like Neil Diamond, Air Supply, and Glen Campbell (my old man’s doppelganger). I bought my first compact cassette tape in ’82, Freeze Frame by the J. Giles Band, at K-Mart after a therapy session at the Washburn Child Guidance Center. 10-year-old me found that tape to be much better therapy that what my counselor was doling out. I bought my first compact disc a scant five years later. Thanks to the runaway success of “Wishing Well”, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby would be the first CD I’d ever pop into the open maw of my Sony Discman.
By the time high school began, I’d seen all of the major formats come and go. And now they all seem to be coming and going around and around again and again.
Cassettes, above and beyond all others, were the paramount format of my coming-of-age epoch. And being that I was the right age during the heyday of cassette/boombox culture, I’ll most likely be mired in it forever. I have a ton of tapes and a badass cassette deck (or 4).
As I previously mentioned, this is the reason I didn’t just leave basement in disarray. This glorious monstrosity has expanded dramatically over the years and goes by various titles:
- “The Wall of Sound”,
- “The Midwest’s Most Dangerous Pioneer Stack”
- “THE ALTER”
- “Don’t Even Think About Going Near Dad’s Stereo”
Call it what you want, it’s the heartbeat of this home. If I spin the big volume knob rightwise enough, the pulsing can be felt from the foundation to the top of the chimney (and beyond). It plays all of the aforementioned formats. In the very near future it will even play digital files and have streaming functionality thanks to Arthur at the Tapeless Deck Project.
Taste aside, this rig dazzles all of the senses. It sounds as impressive as it looks. There are enough shiny knobs and switches to keep your fingers busy for hours. When the big woofers are bouncing prodigiously, the cabinets exhale powerfully through the reflex ports. There is nothing quite so intoxicating as the aroma of ’70s speaker insides. To be honest, I may have licked it once; it tasted metallic. I’d contend that my musical taste is impeccable, however.
Due to the vintage of the equipment, and the relative complexity of tape loop that interconnects half the units, simply turning it on is rather like firing up a 737. Operating it is rather like flying one. As the inimitable Techmaon once said in one of his videos, “I rather like having a complicated HiFi setup that only I can operate. It’s a bit like Biff’s car—only Biff can start it.”
Eventually, I ran out of space for stereo components. Plus, I needed somewhere to display my stable of Pioneer cans/coconuts/headphones. Someday, all 13 components will be stacked from floor-to-celling. Today, the ceiling in our current subterranean space ain’t tall enough. So, the overflow is tucked away in the gutted MCM stereo console that we rescued from a roadside curb alert. Fun stuff here, especially that sexy U-24 Program Selector!
And that’s a wrap!
Sure, there is a furnace/laundry/workout room. There is also a storage room—the one where the kids were sitting on shelves—which has been fully built out for max storage. But those aren’t the sexy parts. And for this provocative post, I only wanted to feature the sexy parts. Creating this space with much assistance from the aforementioned kiddos will forever be one of the greatest joys of this lifetime. It’s where we’ve spent many evenings alone together.
There are a lot of switches, buttons, and remotes required to get it all dazzling and sparkly. This shit don’t just light itself up! I once drunkenly boasted that it takes about 99 switch flips to light up/shut down the basement. Nate immediately called bullshit on this. Karli and I counted the next time we shut it all down. Nate was right. Not including Nate’s computer, it takes exactly 66 switch flips to slow the whirling power meters and quiet the glare.
We’ve had many most excellent times underground. And we’ll continue to have them until we go our separate ways. But long after we sell this mixed up, muddled up, shook up home, the memories that have been absorbed into the cement foundation below us, the cinderblock walls around us, and the wooden joists above us, will linger forever in our respective minds. And that’s OK—that’s where they ultimately belong.
That we got to make those memories in the first place—that is everything!
Copyright © 2021 – ∞ Blake Charles Donley