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Shittin' on a Jet
by Mickey Hess

If you ask me, the greatest hip hop success story has to be that of Brian "Birdman" Williams, founder of Cash Money Records. In his song "Poppin Bottles," Birdman takes the typical American Dream story to a new level. Generally, American success stories take us from rags to riches or from the poorhouse to the penthouse, but Birdman tells us that he "went from shittin' in a cell, to shittin' on a jet." In that one line, Birdman re-envisions success as going from shitting in one place to shitting in another.

I have been thinking about the idea of status as linked to where a man shits.

One crisp morning last September, I went from shitting in a Minneapolis immigrant welcome center to shitting in a Day's Inn in Iowa City.

That was a start.

Why was I in Minneapolis?

I was invited to a bookstore to talk about rap music.

I had written a book about it, and people were coming from far and wide to hear me read words from that book out loud.

The book retailed for $39.95. I was to receive roughly $1.59 for each copy that sold.

How many sold?

By last count, I believe it was in the low dozens.

That morning in Minneapolis, I went from planning to shit in my friend Andy Schondelmeyer's apartment, where the toilet was impossibly broken, to trying to shit in a locked bathroom in a park near Schondelmeyer's house, to considering shitting in the bushes in that same park.

My friend and fellow writer Brian and I were in Minneapolis for one night, and Andy was gracious enough to put us up, and to buy us food at a bar that was also a bowling alley. In exchange for this hospitality, I gave him the following: one book that I had written and thus was of $1.59 value to me, and one Village People's Greatest Hits LP, so scratched that they would not buy it from me at a used record store in Chicago.

Andy Schondelmeyer has a moustache that makes him look like he comes from an Old West photograph. He often wears scarves.

I met Andy Schondelmeyer when we both lived in Kentucky, before he moved to Minneapolis for what he called no reason at all.

"Do you have friends there?"


"Is it for school or a job or something?"


Andy spent a few years on a mission to get a parking ticket in each of America's fifty states. Once he accomplished this mission, he did a series of paintings that replicated the tickets one by one.

I think, secretly, that Andy's love of scarves is the reason he moved to the colder climate of Minneapolis.

It was the night before I shit in the immigrant welcome center, and Andy had to work the morning shift at an art gallery. I was concerned that Brian and I were keeping him up late. I know that Andy Schondelmeyer is a man who needs his sleep. I personally have seen him fall asleep in a bar in Chicago, using his scarf as a pillow while the rest of us talked about Appalachian literature. Andy wasn't drunk. He was just sleepy.

After leaving the bar/bowling alley and arriving at the house that contained his apartment, Andy left Brian and me downstairs in his landlord's apartment while he went upstairs to make his own apartment presentable. Andy's landlord talked about hating his job as a teacher of English, and offered us some of the whiskey he drank to make his job more tolerable.

When Andy finished cleaning, we went to sleep, Andy Schondelmeyer in his bed, me on Andy's rug, and Brian zipped up in his green vinyl sleeping bag.

The combination of the landlord's whiskey and the food from the bar/bowling alley was such that I woke up the next morning with an intense need to shit in Andy Schondelmeyer's bathroom. But the door was closed. And my feet were wet.

Andy emerged from the bathroom muttering, and I jumped at the sight of the open door. I had barely shut it, though, before Andy knocked on it desperately.

"Don't use the toilet," he said.

I looked at him. I looked at Brian, still asleep, in a puddle that had not been on the carpet when we fell asleep.

"The toilet's broken,"Andy said.

"Oh," I said. "Ok."

I watched Andy get ready for work and draw us a map of Minneapolis, in case Brian and I wanted to go anywhere.

Assuming the map would lead me to where I could shit, I did not swallow my pride to ask Andy if he knew of the closest bathroom.

Andy left us a key to his apartment, and told us to drop it into his mail slot on the front porch before we left town.

We left Brian sleeping in a pool of toilet water. Andy left for work, and I left in search of a place to shit, Birdman's lyrics in my head. Went from shittin' in cell, to shittin' on a jet.

"What's the big deal?" I remembered Brian saying when we listened to Birdman on the ride from Saint Louis to Minneapolis.

"What do you mean?"

"That line about the jet. I don't get it."

"What don't you get? It's a success story, you know? Shittin' in a cell to shittin' on a jet? That pretty much says it all."

"Well I get that. He used to be in jail, right, but the jet thing. Why was that such a goal for him?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"He's just setting his sights pretty low. I mean, is he saying he got to ride on an airplane?"

Then I realized Brian had pictured Birdman squeezing through the aisle, sliding closed the OCCUPIED lever in a cramped Southwest Airlines bathroom, looking at himself in the tiny mirror above the sink and thinking I made it.

Shitting in an airplane bathroom is maybe three steps above shitting in a cell. In between you have gas station, hospital waiting room, and Burger King.

But Birdman doesn't say airplane. He says jet. Jet implies private jet. I bet Birdman's is made of diamonds.

Interpretation is a powerful thing. There is also the possibility, I suppose, of picturing Birdman squatting, pants around his ankles, shitting on top of a jet, rather than shitting while on board a jet. Would this be his revenge on the system?

That morning in Minneapolis, I would have shit in a Southwest Airlines bathroom. I would have shit in a Burger King. Does Minneapolis not have Burger Kings? They were conspicuously absent from Andy Schondelmeyer's map, which included only three points of interest: Andy's house, Lake Minnetonka, and a hip hop store called Fifth Element.

I would have shit in Fifth Element. But it was very far away from Andy's house, unlikely to be open at eight in the morning, and unlikely to invite me into its employees-only restroom.

I would have shit in Lake Minnetonka. I would have befouled the waters in which Appollonia cleansed herself in the film Purple Rain.

But Lake Minnetonka was also far away, although Andy's map was to no kind of scale. His house did not sit on the park as the map would indicate, but was in fact several blocks from the park.

Minneapolis, are your park restrooms all permanently locked? Do you unlock them at a certain time in the morning? Is 8:30 AM too early for park use? It was not too early for the joggers whose presence prevented me from shitting behind the tennis courts.

Minneapolis, why are your affordable neighborhoods so residential? Are your citizens as nice as the stereotypes would insist? Are they nice enough to allow strangers to shit in their homes? Should I have knocked on their doors?

I would have been willing to buy something in order to use a store's restroom. But there were houses only, no businesses except ones that must open later than 9 o'clock in the morning. The only public institution I could find was an elementary school, where I did not feel I could ask to shit.

So it was a long, slow morning walk for me in Minneapolis, until I found an immigrant welcome center, finally, where I considered requesting use of the restroom in a fake foreign accent, but in the end played it straight.

Locking the stall door behind me, I thought about where my life's journey had taken me. I went from being prevented from shitting in Andy Schondelmeyer's broken toilet, to shitting in the immigrant welcome center.

Not bad for a morning's work. All was well, I thought.

But when I returned to Andy's apartment — the map or my interpretation of it leading me the wrong direction initially — I found that the key Andy gave me did not open the door to his building, but only to his specific apartment on the top floor.

Andy was working at the art gallery. Brian was probably still asleep in a pool of whatever was flowing out of Andy's broken toilet, and I was standing outside, shit-empty and locked out.

I looked up at the windows. I had no idea which one was Andy's.

This time gave me pause to think about status. I had, after all, slept in sewage and then taken a shit in an immigrant welcome center. This was not, by any perspective, my most shining moment.

In Minneapolis, Brian and I had read from our books to a crowd of twelve people, and we were thoroughly thrilled with this number. It was better than St. Louis, where we had read to a crowd of three. Better than Oak Park, Illinois, where nobody showed up at all.

We had chosen the wrong century to be writers. Maybe this was the problem. Writing in this century, it is perhaps best not to think in terms of numbers. It is perhaps best to say that the St. Louis crowd blew away Oak Park's, and the Minneapolis crowd quadrupled St. Louis.

After the St. Louis stop of our fabulous book tour, Brian and I talked about success and status as we sat by the murky pool at the Days Inn Express. I told him about the Appalachian author Jesse Stuart, and the success he had during his lifetime. Brian had never heard of him. No one has. I told Brian about my ex-rockstar real estate agent, who used to be in one of Kentucky's most famous punk bands.

Draped over a deck chair beside the pool was a pair of Wal-Mart-brand Levi's knockoffs, a line they call Faded Glory, which seems like a devastating concept to name a product after. I scanned the pool for the person who bought these jeans, someone who looked like he might say, "I had it all, once. Now all I can afford is Wal-Mart pants."

In contrast to this soul-crushing brand of jeans, there is a pseudo-punk band with the pseudo-inspiring name Newfound Glory. My wife once called them "Newfound Gloryhole," which I believe to be a much better name for a band.

Brian and I sat there, watching a man clean the Day's Inn pool. There were worse things to be than a writer. Brian had written a book about punk music, which says you are not supposed to own things. I had written a book about hip hop, which says that you're supposed to be born with nothing, but end up rich and buy lots of things so that everyone knows it.

What would Birdman do if he were locked out of his house this morning?

He would buy a new house.

And he would christen that house by shitting in it.

Shittin' in a cell. My wife, who likes Internet gossip the way I like rap, tells me that for the first few days Paris Hilton spent in jail for DUI charges, she refused to go to the bathroom. She was afraid somebody would take a picture of her on the prison toilet.

She went from shittin' on a jet to trying to hold her shit in a cell.

Paris Hilton is perhaps the antithesis to Birdman's story.

People sometimes ask the question, "Why is Paris Hilton famous?" I think it's because it's fun to despise her. None of us knew her before she got rich. Before she got rich, she didn't exist.

It's easy to resent Paris Hilton for what she was born with, but I have no problem with what Birdman has accumulated through hard work, and crime, and writing songs about where he shits. So it is fun for me to see Paris Hilton arrested. It is even more fun for me to think about her shitting in a cell. Shitting in a cell is as low as it gets.

I have taken a shit in some undesirable places, no question. Once, when my plumbing went haywire over Thanksgiving weekend, I took a shit in a garbage bag while crouching in my aluminum storage shed.

But I have never shat in a cell.

And I have never shat on a jet.

My life, in shitting, is too middle-of-the-road, perhaps, too reserved. My life's trajectory is too even.

But one crisp September morning, I took a shit in an immigrant welcome center and locked myself out of a house. Andy Schondelmeyer was at work. Brian was still sleeping somewhere upstairs with an overflowed toilet soaking his green vinyl sleeping bag.

I chose one window and threw a rock at it. I rang the doorbells of seven different apartments until someone woke up and came outside.

It was not Brian. It was the Appalachian author Jesse Stuart. He had a blanket wrapped around himself like a toga.

"I got locked out," I said. "Sorry I woke you up."

Jesse Stuart looked at me and shook his head. "My father always told us never to live where we could see the smoke from another man's chimney."


"He told us we should never live so close to another house that the chickens would mingle in the woods."

"Oh. Ok."

He sat down next to me on the porch steps. He produced a stick and a pocketknife and commenced what is known as whittling.

Jesse Stuart was the former poet laureate of Kentucky. He had a thirty-year run, until he died in 1984. That was twenty-three years ago, but now he was back with a brand new novel.

He was the first novelist to resurrect himself to write in a new century.

But nobody cared. The back-cover blurbs for his new novel read: "Ignored by serious literary critics," and "His work lies outside the currently fashionable modes."

These were the best blurbs he could find.

In 1943, his novel Taps for Private Tussie sold more than a million copies. The Atlantic Monthly published a story he wrote when he was a sophomore in high school. In those days, he could have shit on a jet.

"Jesse Stuart," I said. "Have I picked the wrong century to be a writer?"

Satisfied with his whittling, he pulled a small yellow notebook from his back pocket and started writing. I was interrupting his morning ritual.

He bit off a little corner of notebook paper and spat it across the porch. "I spoke one time at Breadloaf Writers School," he said. "While I was speaking, I noticed Robert Frost taking notes. Afterward, he came up to me and asked me where I learned to talk like that. I told him we all talked like that in Appalachia."


"Yes sir."

"Mr. Stuart, do you think people want to read a story where you and I have a conversation?"

Jesse Stuart put down his notebook. He sighed and spat something else out of his mouth. Maybe chewing tobacco. "Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it," he said. "Write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."

I considered this.

I was still considering it when we heard a great thunderous crash from overhead and the entire top floor of Andy Schondelmeyer's building burst into a waterfall. Water exploded out of the windows, bringing a cascade of the contents of Andy's apartment onto the lawn in front of Jesse Stuart and me.

Books. Scarves. A television. A small dog. The toilet itself. And Brian, still in his sleeping bag, looking like a human-sized waterborn caterpillar. He looked like it was not a good way to wake up. He lay there with his eyes open and his mouth frozen in shock. It did not look good.

But when Jesse Stuart and I rushed over, Brian burst into laughter. He sat up and shook the toilet water out of his hair just like the dog had done, but he didn't stop laughing.

We laughed too. It was the kind of laughter that made Jesse Stuart slap his knees. The kind of laughter that you don't know if you're going to be able to stop, deep laughter that required us to sit down to avoid falling over, and any glance at the deluge of Andy's apartment brought it back to full force.

Finally Jesse Stuart stood up, blanket still wrapped around him. He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes and said, "I guess the Greeks and the Appalachians are a whole lot alike."

"What?" Brian asked.

"That'd be a good book," said Jesse Stuart.

"Yeah," I told him. "I guess it would be."

Mickey Hess is a hip hop scholar and professor at Rider University. His books are Icons of Hip Hop (Greenwood, 2007), Is Hip Hop Dead? (Praeger, 2007), and the forthcoming memoir Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory (Garrett County Press, 2008). When he rocks the mic, he rocks the mic right.

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