Roadkill: A Love Story
This cat, Michael Hames explains, isn't prime roadkill. Dead cats are a dime a dozen; this one's old and dehydrated, in one piece, and there's not much blood. But it is flat. Flat's a plus.
Michael snaps his usual three photos, one close up, the others further back and from slightly different angles. To get the face and teeth in all the shots, he stands downwind and tries to ignore the stink. Faces and teeth are good, too.
I nod; I see where he's going. More than most adults, I'm in touch with my inner 14-year-old. I refuse to buy a minivan. I sing with the car radio. And, God help me, I still understand the subversive thrill of disgusting pictures -- the dare-you-to-look, can-you-believe-it, doesn't-get-any-nastier-than-that photos. The kind that have made Michael, at 24, the rising king of Internet gross-outs.
Plenty of on-line entrepreneurs sell some form of sex, but Michael focuses mainly on the other Big One: death. On his two web sites, goregallery.com and houstonroadkill.com, he posts photos of Marilyn Monroe's corpse, of squirrels lying dismembered by the side of Texas 288, of an epidermoid carcinoma of the anal canal. As the site itself brags, it's "the Internet's # 1 site for the disturbed!" And: "All the stuff your mother didn't want you to see!"
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Heck, I don't want my kids to see that stuff.
And Michael feels the same way.
I'm a little worried about meeting Michael. I'd sent e-mail to someone named zombie@GOREGALLERY.COM, TELLING HIM THAT I'D HEARD HIS SITE WAS BASED IN HOUSTON AND WOULD LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT IT. MICHAEL CALLED BACK. HE SOUNDED NICE ENOUGH ON THE PHONE, BUT ISN'T THAT WHAT THEY ALWAYS SAY ABOUT MASS MURDERERS? I LEAVE A NOTE WITH HIS NAME AND ADDRESS IN CASE THE COPS NEED TO FIND ME.
AT THE MOBILE HOME PARK, I'M NOT SURE I HAVE THE RIGHT ADDRESS. THERE'S A HOMEY STRAW WREATH ON THE DOOR, WRAPPED IN A PERKY BLUE RIBBON. I KNOCK ANYWAY, AND MICHAEL ANSWERS. HE DOESN'T LOOK DANGEROUS -- PALE, YES, IN THE WAY OF ALL COMPUTER GUYS, BUT BABY-FACED AND ROLY-POLY IN A WAY THAT MAKES HIM LOOK EVEN YOUNGER THAN HE IS. HE INTRODUCES ME TO HIS WIFE, ROSIE, OBVIOUSLY THE FORCE BEHIND THAT WREATH.
IN A LESS DIRECT WAY, SHE'S ALSO THE FORCE BEHIND GORE GALLERY. THREE YEARS AGO, MICHAEL WAS ABOUT AS FAR FROM A LIFE OF GORE AS YOU CAN GETo He was enrolled in a seminary, at the Houston Bible Institute (now the College of Biblical Studies). He says he made straight A's, even in the hard classes like Greek. He did inspirational speaking, and people seemed to like it; his Sundays were booked full of gigs at homeless shelters and treatment centers. And for a while, he volunteered with the chaplain's office at TIRR, the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research.
To make ends meet, he had a part-time job at an answering service, and it was there that he met Rosie, who worked at another service on a different floor. She was pretty and, like him, a tad shy. She was also four years older than he was, had been divorced and had five kids. Michael didn't care. He wanted to get married.
He'd occasionally been irritated by the bureaucracy and politics of organized religion. But Rosie was the last straw. When his advisers at the Bible college urged him not to marry her, he dropped out of school.
He got a tech-support job at Access, a little Internet service provider that paid him $1,500 a month. Business was slow; for eight hours a day, he sat staring at a computer screen, looking for ways to entertain himself till it was time to go home. He played on-line games. He surfed the Web. He exchanged jpeg files with denizens of newsgroups such as alt.binaries.pictures.grotesque. And finally, in early '98, he built his own web site, goregallery.com.
The site looks appropriately grungy and homemade, as though it could in fact be the product of some basement-dwelling twisted mind. Michael receives most of its photos electronically -- pictures scanned and e-mailed to him by other aficionados, stuff not copyrighted by someone else and preferably not available elsewhere on-line. He posts medical photos, pictures of famous corpses, of mutilations and weird piercings. One category he calls "Perverted," another "Diseased," another "Just Sick." He's particularly proud of his new "Serial Killers" sections; several Gore Gallery-goers have chosen to adopt their own serial killers and maintain web pages in their honor.
Soon after Michael began to offer such nastiness, his audience found him. The site logged 200 visitors a day, then 500, then 1,000. He sold ads, first for $12 a day, then $20, then more. He found himself immersed in the world of click brokers and link exchanges. Lurid, XXX-rated porn sites became his best clients; one, Church Sluts, now pays him 70 percent of what's spent by any Web surfer who clicks there from Gore Gallery. Others pay 13 cents per click. On an average week, he says, he grosses around $1,000.
When the site began paying more than his job at Access, he quit the job and set up shop at home. At first, his desk was wedged into the master bedroom. Recently, he remodeled the bathroom off that bedroom, taking out the whirlpool to tuck a tiny office behind the shower. Even so, he sees it as only a temporary setup. He wants to move Rosie and the kids out of the mobile home park, maybe into The Woodlands.
In March, Michael launched his second site, houstonroadkill.com. For a while he was gung ho, taking his camera wherever he drove in case he saw something good: a dog with a bloated stomach, maybe, or an armadillo. He lost steam, though, when the site failed to take off the way that Gore Gallery had; it logs only 3,500 hits on the average weekday. He blames the name. "Houston Roadkill" is too local, sounds too small-time. He covets the sleeker domain name "roadkill.com." It's wasted, he thinks, on the consulting company that owns it.
Gore Gallery, though, is thriving. According to Michael's own stats, he logs around 37,000 users on a weekday. Once, after Howard Stern toured the site on-air, the surge of visitors crashed his server the whole day.
Michael spends much of his workday answering e-mail sent to Gore Gallery; that personal touch is one of things he thinks sets him apart from competitors such as rotten.com. He receives requests for photos no longer posted on the site, removed to make room for new stuff. He receives complaints, many of them in the Internet's all-caps flame mode, i.e., "SUCK IT U SICK." (Often, those correspondents were upset by photos of rabbits that Michael and a friend killed, skinned and grilled; human corpses don't provoke the same outrage.) And strangely, he receives lots of mail from female Web groupies -- sex requests, marriage proposals, nude photos. He even had a stalker who sent packages not to his business P.O. box, but to his unlisted home address. She scared him enough that he bought a gun.
All the e-mail is addressed to "Zombie," a nom de Web Michael originally adopted as an ID for on-line games. As Zombie, he's free to be who his audience believes he is: a dark, twisted soul who loves Marilyn Manson. They don't have to know that he seems embarrassed about his porn ads, that Rosie laughs about his groupies or that their sixth child was born in March. Though just last week, a crack appeared in Zombie's persona: Michael added an "Animals" section to Houston Roadkill, with photos of the exotic reptiles and amphibians he owns. He jokes that it might improve his image but, in fact, if he wanted to do that, he could make the section much warmer and fuzzier by showing some of his household's other inhabitants, among them a cat, two lovebirds and a pair of hamsters.
The hamsters belong to the oldest of the kids, a nine-year-old. Sometimes she uses Michael's old bedroom computer to surf the Web. She's not allowed to look at Gore Gallery or Houston Roadkill. To Michael, a civil libertarian, this isn't inconsistent; he doesn't believe that kids should look at his site, and he's registered it so that filtering programs will block it.
Rosie herself isn't a big fan of Michael's sites; she understands their appeal only theoretically. It's instinct, she shrugs. People like to look at dead people. She laughs when, after chatting in their living room, I ask Michael if I could ride along while he hunts for roadkill. She says you don't find many women who want to do that.
If Rosie's in the van, Michael doesn't stop for roadkill. Not unless it's really topnotch.
Not five minutes after we photographed the flattened cat, Michael spots a bird. He says that I'm good luck. Dead birds are rare, more desirable than dogs or cats. He parks the van on the side of the road.
All the time we've been talking, Michael has seemed of two minds about his calling. On one hand, it's not brain surgery, or rocket science, or even the ministry; but on the other, he's not hurting anybody, and he's supporting his family. I half expect him to make some high-flown argument for the Gore Gallery's worth -- that you don't appreciate life unless you know about death, that it takes a little darkness to make you see light, something like that. But he never preaches that secular sermon. He just takes pictures of roadkill.
This bird is lying between the yellow dashes in the middle of West Mount Houston Street; its tail feathers flap forlornly as traffic whizzes past on both sides. Michael waits till no cars are coming then walks to the center of the road and deliberately sets up his three shots. Drivers slow down to look; a man in a big white pickup gives a strange, small wave. Michael's not sure what that's about.
The feathers on the bird's stomach are red. A robin? I ask. Michael thinks so -- robins, those are the ones with the red breasts? Nice birds. He and Rosie like birds. Just this morning, he says, they saw the prettiest one. A little bluebird. Out singing in their tree.
E-mail Lisa Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And for links to Michael Hames's gross-out sites, go to www.houstonpress.com.
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