“They decide who you are and then you are that to them until you become that to you.”
Ben Miller, River Bend Chronicle
When I was nineteen, my second cousin, Paul, gave me a job with his company, Golden Opportunity Vending. It was March of 2005, and I’d just moved back into my parents’ house in Rock Springs, Wyoming after dropping out of school in Denver and then failing in my attempt to make it as a drummer in Austin.
I didn’t know Paul very well when I started working for him, but I identified with him. We were both fuck-ups. Paul’s arcade, Uncle Goofy’s Fun Time Center, had gone out of business three years earlier, at which point he started Golden Opportunity. He had arcade games and vending machines in businesses throughout Rock Springs, and my job mostly consisted of collecting quarters and restocking vending machines. Golden Opportunity Vending was a business of cheapness and marginal profit, constantly reminding me of the contrast between Paul’s life and his dad’s.
Paul Sr. was one of the most successful businessmen that the small town of Rock Springs has ever seen. Coming from second-generation Italian immigrants, he built and ran American National Bank, Imperial Apartments, a Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn, and laundromat. My grandpa Don, Paul Sr.’s older brother, was also a successful Rock Springs entrepreneur. He owned a car dealership, and he built the Outlaw Inn, an upscale hotel/motel, with two partners. He was also the Democratic State Chairman of Wyoming from 1973-78. When I worked for Paul, Grandpa Don and Paul Sr. were both dead, but their reputations in Rock Springs were still alive and breathing.
Two others of the five Anselmi brothers were also prominent businessmen in this small prairie town. I’m sure that gossip about the Anselmi family slithered through Rock Springs during the 60s and mid-70s, when my grandpa and his brothers became successful, but a 1977 episode of 60 Minutes made this gossip ubiquitous. The episode, called “High Noon in Cheyenne,” focuses on Grandpa Don, as well as the governor of Wyoming and the Wyoming Attorney General. In it, Dan Rather and a jilted cop named Neil Compton accuse my grandpa of being connected to “mobsters,” organized crime-related real estate dealings, and governmental corruption—accusations that essentially amount to calling my grandpa a thief and a liar. Because we’re Italian, the repeated mention of organized crime in the episode led a lot people to believe that my family is in the mafia.
Although the 60 Minutes episode is an exercise in logical fallacies that only reveals partial truths about my grandfather, Anselmi became a dirty word in Rock Springs after it aired. I was born eight years later, but the affects of “High Noon in Cheyenne” still lingered, tainting how people saw me and my family. Throughout grade school, junior high, and high school, my classmates would routinely come up to me say things like, “You’re an Anselmi? You guys are in the mafia, right?”
Grandpa Don and Paul Sr. were alcoholics; their youngest brother was a heroin addict who died in a motel fire that he’d set; and most of their progeny became drug addicts and/or alcoholics. Since my dad is one of these addicts, a lot of people in Rock Springs thought that I’d turn out to be another fucked up Anselmi, too. By the time I started working for my second cousin Paul, I’d decided that, if so many people in town thought I was a piece of shit—a golden child of Rock Springs who’d thrown away his opportunities—I would embrace being an asshole and then push that role to an extreme. I think Paul made the same decision about his life at some point. In a lot of ways, my experiences working for him seem like the culmination of dealing with these expectations—a boiling point after nineteen years of living in the white trash panopticon that is Rock Springs, Wyoming.
A typical day working for Paul at Golden Opportunity Vending: I get to Paul’s apartment, which is in Imperial Apartments, shortly after noon. Because Paul’s dad is dead, his mom, Pat, owns and operates the apartment complex, where she lets her son stay without paying rent. I’m completely stoned. Paul’s in his living room, sitting on his La-Z-Boy. Other than tighty whities, he’s not wearing clothes. He slicks his greasy hair back with his fingers. Paul has a handlebar mustache, and he wears stalker glasses that get darker when he goes outside.
“What’s the line for LA and San Antonio?” Talking on his cell phone, Paul glances at me and then turns back to the TV, fingering his mustache all the while. I sit on the couch and pet Paul’s dog, Chummy, a rotund black lab to whom Paul regularly feeds Big Macs. “Christ, alright,” Paul says. “Give me LA with a teaser of 6 and an over of 198.” He closes his cell phone after placing the bet with his bookie. “How you doing, Jay? You want to grab me a beer from the fridge? And grab one for yourself, too.” I like that Paul calls me Jay instead of J.J. Only close friends or relatives call me Jay. It’s also what most people call my dad, whose name is J.J., too.
Paul and I drink our beers and smoke a few cigarettes while we watch Law and Order. I look around Paul’s apartment. Commemorative NFL mugs line a shelf on the side of the room—a porcelain mug representing every team from 1992. A picture of Paul kneeling behind a dead elk and holding its head up by the horns hangs on the wall above the mugs. The picture was taken fifteen years ago. In it, like every other picture of Paul in his apartment, he has the same glasses, mustache, and hairstyle that he has now.
On the other side of the room, a mounted coyote with murderous yellow eyes sits atop the entertainment center. Paul’s porcelain Precious Moments figurine collection is set up on a shelf under the coyote. Blonde-haired children stare into the living room with their trademark Precious Moments eyes.
When the credits of Law and Order start to roll, Paul tells me what arcade games and vending machines need to be collected and/or restocked. “After you do that,” he says, “come back to the apartment and we’ll have some steaks.” He gets up from his La-Z-Boy, scratches his gut, and walks to the bathroom to shower.
The keys for Paul’s vending machines and arcade games are stored in a large Tupperware container that sits under a chair in the living room. I grab the box, place Paul’s analog coin counter on top, and carry these things downstairs. A tired-looking woman who lives two floors below smokes on the walkway outside her apartment. Her door is open, and I can hear her two sons screaming at each other. “Hey J.J.,” she says, watching me as I walk downstairs and get into my truck.
I drive to the other side of the complex to pick up Isaiah, my fourteen-year-old co-worker, who lives in a ratty one-bedroom with his aunt, uncle, and two brothers. He’s a stout kid with shaggy hair, wearing baggy jeans and a World Industries t-shirt. We go to Uncle Goofy’s warehouse, which is about one minute away, to get the products we need to restock Paul’s machines.
Now, Paul uses the warehouse that his arcade had been in as a storage space. It’s a squat blue building, and ‘Uncle Goofy’s’ crawls across the front in cursive, silver letters. Trash, tumbleweeds, and a fine layer of dirt line the bottom edge of the concrete building. Looking over the warehouse roof, I can see the sign for the Holiday Inn, as well as the sign for the Comfort Inn. The motels are one block away and across the street from each other. Like Imperial Apartments, Paul’s mom now owns and operates both of these motels.
There’s a mound of soda twelve-packs rising up from the middle of the warehouse floor. Several have busted open, and stray cans litter the ground. Five or six arcade games with cracked screens are pushed against the right wall, and a few nonoperational vending machines sit in back. A scrim of dust covers each of these machines. To my left, wooden shelves hold several boxes of chips, candy bars, and stuffed animals. Isaiah and I load stuffed animals, soda, and candy into the bed of my truck. Before we leave, I put a Mountain Dew and a pack of cookies in my front pockets, and Isaiah stuffs his pockets with candy bars. Paul often tells us to take anything we want.
We drive to an indoor miniature golf course, where a few of Paul’s arcade games and one of his claw machines are located. I’m still high, and I feel like I’m looking at the Astroturf-carpeted course on an LCD screen. After we bring in the coin counter and Tupperware box, Isaiah and I spend at least two hours trying to find the right keys to the games. If most of the keys weren’t mislabeled, it would take us less than ten minutes to collect quarters from these machines. We go through this routine each week, but we never re-label the keys. Although I often laugh about this situation, viewing it through a sarcastic lens, this repeating scenario always makes me think about the expectation in Rock Springs that I’m destined to be a fuck-up.
The owner of the arcade is tall and stout, with a scraggly ponytail. Sweat gathers above his unibrow as he watches Isaiah and me search through the Tupperware box, trying multiple keys on each game. When we’ve finally collected quarters from the arcade games and restocked the claw game with stuffed animals, Isaiah runs the spoils through Paul’s coin counter and then calculates the owner’s share on a piece of notebook paper. The owner carefully checks Isaiah’s math. While the guy looks over his shoulder, Isaiah runs quarters through the counter until he’s reached the correct amount, pouring the money into a canvas bag.
After collecting quarters and restocking machines at a few other places, Isaiah and I go to American National Bank to cash in the coins. Like Imperial Apartments, the Holiday Inn, and Comfort Inn, Paul’s mom now runs the bank. We each carry two moneybags filled with quarters inside.
The white marble floors of the lobby glisten. Each bank employee knows who we are and who we work for. A teller runs the quarters through an electronic counting machine. For some reason, I love the thick, metallic sound of coins pouring into the metal feeder. Handing me the cash equivalent—usually about $300—the teller asks how my parents are doing.
When Isaiah and I get back to Paul’s apartment, Paul says, “Hey guys. Did we make any money today?” I hand him the cash. He licks his fingers before counting it. “Isaiah, there’s some steaks in the fridge. Why don’t you start cooking them up for us.” Paul usually buys food for us after each workday. Sometimes he buys fast food; other times he buys steaks or shrimp. Paul and I watch TV while Isaiah cooks the steaks and makes a salad for us.
Paul has a daughter, who he met when she was ten, but she’s broken off contact with him. He’s recently gone through a nasty divorce, and his stepdaughter no longer wants him in her life. Like me, Paul has torched several bridges in the Anselmi family, and none of my grandpa’s progeny, aside from my dad, will talk to him. A year or so earlier, Paul asked Isaiah’s aunt and uncle if he could adopt Isaiah. They declined. Paul has told me multiple times that he just wants a family of his own. Since that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, he spends as much time as possible with Isaiah and me, treating us like his sons, at least in some ways.
Isaiah washes the dishes when we finish eating. After he goes home, I smoke a bowl in Paul’s bathroom. Because Paul knows that I usually get high in my truck, he encourages me to smoke at his place. “You know the cops in this town would love to bust an Anselmi,” he often tells me.
Back in the living room, I say, “Thanks a lot for dinner, Paul.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Call me Uncle Goofy. I see you more as my nephew than my second cousin.”
I never call Paul Uncle Goofy. Aside from it being corny and a bit creepy, the name is a euphemism. Paul’s sister, Lisa, had come up with the nickname seven or eight years earlier, when her five-year-old daughter asked why her uncle Paul acted so strangely. Lisa couldn’t tell her that Paul was constantly fucked up on pain pills and booze, so she said, “Oh, Paul’s just goofy. You should call him Uncle Goofy.”
Paul adopted this nickname, often urging me to use it. Although I don’t call him Uncle Goofy, I do feel like Paul is my uncle. I love him like an uncle, and I feel closer to him than to any of my real uncles in the Anselmi family.
“Are you staying over tonight?” Paul asks. “You know you’re always more than welcome.”
We drink a few stiff vodka and Seven Ups, and then Paul gives me two pills—a percocet and an oxycontin. I wash them down with my drink. Paul swallows five percocets and three oxycontins, a dose that could kill someone without his tolerance. Before the pills hit me, I call my mom to tell her that I’m staying the night at Paul’s. Soon, I see two distinct versions of Paul sitting in his dingy burgundy recliner, and I laugh my ass off.
“You’re all fucked up, aren’t you,” Paul says, chuckling. “You remind me of your dad.”
In August, six months after I started working for Paul, he stopped giving Isaiah and me paychecks. I usually worked over twenty hours a week for him, but I understood why he didn’t want to pay me. I inhabited a strange, liminal space between being a friend, employee, nephew, and cousin to Paul, and I was a leech. Also, Golden Opportunity Vending wasn’t doing very well. But Paul should’ve been paying Isaiah, who constantly worked his ass off.
Paul wasn’t legally obligated to pay us because we worked under the table. Not wanting to create any tension between us, I didn’t talk to him about the pay lag. He also gave Isaiah and me “spending money”—about $40 cash, once or twice a week—bought food for us, let me stay at his apartment whenever I wanted, and fed me pills and booze. Isaiah didn’t party, though.
One night in October, Paul and I got wrecked in his apartment. At this point, he hadn’t given Isaiah or me a paycheck in over two months.
“Your Uncle Goofy needs to get out of this goddamn town,” Paul said, suddenly getting up from his La-Z-Boy. He manically paced in front of his coyote and Precious Moments figurine collection, taking gulps from his drink. He was forty-three and had lived in Rock Springs his entire life. “I think I’m going to go to Reno for the weekend. That’s just what your Uncle Goofy needs—some hookers and black jack.”
The next day, Paul booked an expensive hotel room in Reno. I thought that he should pay Isaiah and me instead of going to Nevada to gamble and party, but I didn’t say this to him. On the night before he left, he told me that I could stay at his place while he was gone. “Just promise me you won’t have a party,” Paul said.
“I won’t have a party.”
“Really, my mom will get pissed if she finds out you had a party in here. Just bring a few girls up for an old fashioned fuck fest.”
I promised Paul that I wouldn’t have a party.
Before leaving the next morning, he gave me seventy dollars and said, “Here’s some money to buy food for you and Isaiah.” I put Paul’s suitcase in the back of his truck. He hugged me and said that he’d see me in three days.
Isaiah came over to the apartment after an hour or so. I left to buy a bag of weed. When I got back, Isaiah and I ate at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Later that night, after Isaiah went home, I got completely twisted, alone in Paul’s apartment.
Feeling like there was a viscous screen over my eyes, I looked at some of the photographs on Paul’s walls. In one, he and his dad stood with an arm around each other, both holding a drink in the other hand. Paul had a large gut and stood over six feet tall, but, next to his dad, he looked small.
In another picture, Paul and my dad, both in their 20s, kneeled next to a river in northern Wyoming, holding up several fish they’d just caught. Their eyes were ridiculously bloodshot, and their lips curled up into the smartass Anselmi smirk that I saw in the mirror when I went to take a piss in Paul’s bathroom.
By the next afternoon, I’d smoked all my weed. Isaiah came over, and he wanted food, but neither of us had any money. Paul kept two large Folgers cans filled with quarters beneath a desk in his room. Watching TV with Isaiah, I thought about the coffee cans, and I thought about how we hadn’t gotten paid in over two months.
“Do you think Paul would notice if we took some quarters from those coffee cans under his desk?” I asked Isaiah.
“I don’t know, dude. What if we take them and he does notice?”
“We’ll only take like thirty or forty dollars each, and then go collect some quarters to replace them.” I’d never stolen anything before, but this idea seemed justifiable, in many ways because I didn’t really think about it. Now, I can’t help but to draw connections between my decision to become a thief and the narrative about the Anselmi family from the 60 Minutes episode—a narrative that constantly loomed above me in Rock Springs.
Isaiah was still unsure.
“Paul owes both of us money, anyway,” I said, knowing this would convince him.
In Paul’s room, I filled two small Ziploc bags with quarters, reaching into a coffee can and putting handfuls of coins into each bag. As I sealed the second bag, I said, “I’ll just be waiting in my truck. Don’t take more than forty dollars’ worth.”
When Isaiah came outside, he was carrying a pillowcase, his knees bent under its weight. He’d obviously taken a lot more than forty dollars in quarters, but Paul owed us both several-hundred dollars. On a different level, I felt like our actions wouldn’t have consequences. People in Rock Springs already saw me as a piece of shit, so stealing from my own cousin was just another way to embody that role.
We drove to Albertson’s to cash in the coins. The red afternoon sun gleamed above the sea of sagebrush and rolling hills that surrounds Rock Springs. Isaiah had a hard time slinging the pillowcase over his shoulder when he got out of my truck. The quarters jingled, heavily.
“Fuck, how much did you take?”
“It’s only like thirty or forty dollars’ worth,” Isaiah said, laughing. At this point, I felt like we’d already gone too far to turn back. I walked inside, and Isaiah followed.
As we stood in line at the customer service counter, I worried that the employees and customers—who kept giving us sidelong glances—somehow knew what we were up to. The clerk, a small man with short hair and glasses, knew who I was and who I worked for—he lived two floors below Paul at Imperial Apartments. He looked at me with an almost palpable disdain, a look that I’d been getting in Rock Springs for my entire life.
I put the plastic bags onto the counter and asked him to cash the quarters. He handed me $57 after running the coins through an electronic counter, and I felt a brief rush, like I’d just gotten away with robbing a bank. Isaiah heaved the pillowcase onto the counter, and I walked outside. When Isaiah opened the door to my truck, he waved a wad of twenties and fifties in the air, like he was in a shitty rap video. He probably had over $500.
My hands smelled like quarters.
I dropped Isaiah off at Paul’s, called my dealer, and left to buy an eighth of high-quality reefer. Isaiah invited seven or eight of his buddies over—a group of ratty skater kids who greeted me when I came back. While I got stoned with a few of them, Isaiah went to Arby’s and came back with a shitload of food. Later, he bought another meal for his friends and me, at Wendy’s this time. He could’ve bought clothes, shoes, videogames, a skateboard, or a bunch of other things that a fourteen-year-old kid might want, but food was the first thing that came to his mind.
On the evening of the next day, Isaiah and I watched TV. Orange light coming through the blinds shone on the web of crumbs that littered the carpet in front of the entertainment center.
“Oh shit, dude,” Isaiah said. “We need to collect some quarters so we can fill those cans back up.”
“Don’t worry about it. Paul won’t notice.”
“What if he does, though?”
“If he does, we can just tell him that I threw a huge party and someone stole the quarters. We’ll just tell him that I got too fucked up, and shit got out of control. We can blame it all on me.”
“I don’t know, dude. Wouldn’t it just be easier to go collect some more quarters?”
I told Isaiah not to worry about it. Feeling nervous, he left to eat dinner with his family.
Paul got home around noon the next day. He hurriedly shut the door after Chummy ambled into the apartment. “Christ, Jay,” he said. “Your Uncle Goofy’s in some serious shit. I blew ten grand gambling, and spent another five on hookers.” Strands of hair were stuck to his forehead, and his eyes were glassy, with dilated pupils. A variety of food stains speckled his tan polo shirt.
Stoned, I sat on his couch, eating slices of cheese.
“I need to get some money together—fast.” Paul walked into his bedroom and, less than a minute later, yelled, “Jay, get in here.” He kneeled on the carpet, holding an empty coffee can in each hand. “What happened? These were full of quarters when I left.”
“Oh shit,” I said, feigning surprise. “Someone must’ve stolen them at the party Isaiah and I had.”
“What the fuck, Jay? The only thing I asked was that you didn’t have a party while I was gone.”
I was surprised that he believed me. Aside from some extra crumbs in the living room, the apartment looked the same as it did when Paul left. Also, three or four jewelry boxes sat on the dresser, each filled with expensive jewelry, and gold chains dangled from both corners of the dresser mirror, so it didn’t make sense that someone would steal quarters from Paul when he had these easily accessible valuables lying around.
“Now I have to go over everything else to see if that’s all they took.” As Paul frantically rummaged through his jewelry boxes, I thought about telling him the truth. A queasy guilt rose into my throat.
Suddenly, Paul stopped rummaging. “They stole my elk medallion,” he said, wide-eyed. “It was a platinum medallion of a trophy elk, on a gold chain. It was a family heirloom that my dad gave me, which was passed to him from my grandparents—your great-grandparents. It’s worth at least fifteen grand.”
At this point, I couldn’t tell if Paul saw through my lie and was trying to push me to admit that I’d taken the quarters, or if he actually believed that someone else had stolen them. Either way, I felt sure that he didn’t actually think his elk medallion had been stolen. To this day, I think that Paul had either lost or sold the medallion, as well as several other family heirlooms, when he was fucked up, or when he’d lost too much gambling, and didn’t want to tell his mom, who often reacted to his fuck-ups by threatening to remove him from the trust fund Paul Sr. had set up. I think Paul immediately saw the party as a way to explain no longer having these things to her—a shimmer of the Anselmi cunning that he’d inherited from his dad.
Throughout the following month, Paul kept discovering other valuables—mostly rare coins, jewelry, or other family heirlooms—that were stolen at my imaginary party. Within three weeks, Paul’s estimation of the damages had grown to over $75,000.
Isaiah and I worked for $7-an-hour to repay this debt, which meant that we worked for free. Now, Paul didn’t have to pay either of us, even though we worked off what we’d actually stolen within two weeks. Isaiah’s family was broke and he needed the money, so I immediately regretted implicating him in my lie.
In December, I quit working for Paul and moved back to Denver for school. I’m not sure what happened to Isaiah.
Throughout the next year, Paul regularly called my parents, telling them that they owed him the accumulated worth of the valuables that were stolen at my party. I told them that I had a party while Paul was gone, but that nothing was stolen, aside from his quarters. In the context of my imaginary party scenario, it didn’t make sense that I would know this, but my parents didn’t question my story, probably because Paul was infamous the Anselmi family for being a liar.
The next time Paul called, my dad told him to fuck off. But he kept calling. When my parents started hanging up on him, he started leaving messages. During a weekend visit back to Rock Springs, I listened to one of them. In his droning, tar-soaked monotone, Paul slurred, “I found some more jewelry that was stolen at Jay’s party. It’s getting close to one hundred grand in damages.” He started rambling about some kind of payment plan that he was willing to offer my parents.
A week or so later, I finally decided to call Paul. I knew we’d never reconcile, but I felt like I owed him the truth.
“There was no party, Paul. I stole your quarters.”
“You’re a little thief and a liar.”
I felt the blunt truth of his words in my stomach.
Paul shot himself two years after this conversation.
I’ve dulled the regret I feel for stealing his quarters and lying about it by telling myself that I was just embodying expectations that had been imposed upon me in Rock Springs. There’s some credence to this idea. The long-term affects of “High Noon in Cheyenne” made me feel like my family and I were always under surveillance. Everyone in town seemed to know my family’s history—albeit a bastardized, half-true history—expecting me to become a duplicitous addict, like most of the Anselmis. I reacted to this lead blanket of expectations by wanting to rebel but ultimately, and possibly inevitably, conforming. But, despite my attempts to salve my guilt by viewing my decisions to lie and steal as inevitable products of small town determinism, the last words Paul spoke to me still reverberate in my brain.
At the same time, I feel weirdly detached from my memories of working for Paul, in part because those experiences were so absurd. The strangeness and seeming-unreality of these memories have also been amplified by the rumors I’ve heard about the end of Paul’s life: shortly after getting married to a meth addict, he got pulled over on an isolated highway in rural Utah. The policeman shot Chummy, so Paul punched the cop in the face. Before Paul went to court for assaulting this police officer, his mom tried to force him into rehab by threatening to remove him from their family trust, like she’d done several times before.
These stories, which likely contain at least fractional amounts of truth, sometimes make me feel like Paul wasn’t real—a sense of detachment that’s been further reinforced by the fact that I moved away from Rock Springs over eight years ago. More often though, I feel a sickly guilt when I think about Paul. It’s not rational, but I can’t avoid thinking that I was partly responsible for his suicide. I was one of the last members of the Anselmi family that would talk to him before our relationship ended, and I know that he died a lonely man.
J.J. Anselmi’s first book, Heavy: a Memoir of Wyoming, BMX, Drugs, and Heavy Fucking Music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in late 2015. You can find more of his writing here: www.jjanselmi.com