A Heaping Slice of Humble Pie

This is quite possibly my roommate’s favorite story about my youth. In high school, there was a guy who loved to argue. He’d argue about anything, and he was never wrong. In his eyes. He was my friend, despite the massive headaches he gave me, and he stayed my friend for a long time. One thing that never changed was his insistence that he was always right, despite the evidence against his point. It should come as no surprise that he grew up to be a proud Republican who I can no longer talk to.

One day, I’m pretty sure this was senior year, he came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program, and he told us that we were pronouncing manicotti wrong this whole time. It wasn’t man-ih-COHT-ee, it was man-ih-CUHT. He’d know because he was Italian. This was, in my opinion, the stupidest thing I’d heard in quite some time. None of the nerds and misfits were swayed by his argument, and we all had to endure it whenever the word manicotti came up (which to be honest, was pretty rare) and he corrected us. He was ready to die on this hill.

One day, toward the end of our stretch in high school, he sheepishly came to the group of nerds and misfits in the Gifted And Talented Education program and confessed that he found out that it was indeed pronounced man-ih-COHT-ee. He had his bib and his fork out, prepared to eat a shitload of crow, and our reaction was only, “Yeah, we know.” The journey he went on had no effect on our lives in any way whatsoever. In retrospect, I wasted that moment. I should have treasured it because, in his forty-five years of life, this was the one time in history that this guy, this fucking guy, has ever admitted to being wrong about anything.

Also, Nicole and I pronounce it man-ih-CUHT now because that’s how much we love a good story.

An Autopsy of my Nostalgia 

I finished my typing project. I was only going to do 2002-2004, but I kept going backward, all the way to April 1999. I typed up a total of 162 entries, and there were only about a dozen between 1999 and 2001.  It turned out to cover almost my entire life in New York, give or take a few months here and there, and what a journey it was.  

Things I learned. 

1) I was really smug at times, and it was kind of hilarious, like watching a fourteen-year-old in his dad’s suit. 

2) My life in New York wasn’t some solid stretch of time. I went through several different phases where I was a different person throughout: a fish-out-of-water, a lonely single guy, a boyfriend, a rock ‘n’ roll bar fiend, and those all break down into subcategories.  

3) I had no idea how good I had it, particularly during that party guy stretch at the end. I had a solid, diverse group of friends, a city that was wide open with possibilities, and a comic book to illustrate. And I was so unhappy. It just goes to show that you don’t appreciate it until you don’t have it anymore.  

4) There are some friends who were real rock stars in that period of my life, some of whom are on Facebook, some of whom actually log into Facebook every once in a while, and one who is not on Facebook or really anywhere on the internet (I tracked down his email address a week ago and sent him a note, but he hasn’t responded, so that’s one door that’s thoroughly closed). If you’re one of these rock stars, you will likely be hearing from me soon; please don’t mind me, I’m feeling nostalgia.  

I don’t want to say I peaked twenty-three to seventeen years ago. As I mentioned above, I was pretty unhappy through all of it, looking for romance and not being satisfied when I found it. During my marriage, I traveled the world and properly treated the mental illnesses that plagued me, becoming a much happier person overall. I never want to go back there again. However, New York was a vibrant, exciting time in my life, and, as I approach retirement and the weeks kind of bleed into each other, I don’t think I’ll ever have that much fun again. What’s nice about these updates I’ve found is that I go into such detail that I am finding about dinner parties that I have no memory of, as well as the discovery that I went on TWO dates with that unusual girl I met at another party, not just the one, and just how much of a jerk one of my ex-friends could be.  

This was also a nice break from writing novels, which I’ve been doing nonstop for four years, and a little bit of inspiration for my next one. If I had to grade this little project, I give it an A+.  

A Reunion but Sideways

And now, here’s a Hollywood comedy moment that actually happened to me. 

From about 1999 to 2000 Katie was my best friend. I don’t know if I was hers. She had come to New York to be an actor, which didn’t work out, much like my having moved to New York to be a writer. At the time, though, we dreamed big. I liked her because she was funny and weird and larger-than-life, and together we could enjoy the full effect of New York City while not having a penny between us. Life, for me, was simple back then.

We grew apart for various reasons, the least of which was the new romance I got wrapped up in. And because life, for her, was not simple, she left New York to return home. But she was, and still is, one of my favorite people in the world, and when she was going to return to the city for a visit during the Christmas season, I couldn’t have been more excited.

Katie wasn’t a punctual person, but I was, and I arrived at the Union Square Market and waited as the minutes clicked by. There she was, in a shop selling something quaint, and she hadn’t noticed me. I missed her so much, I was going to sneak up and give her the World’s Biggest Hug. And I did.

But it wasn’t Katie.

My victim would have been well within her rights to mace me, but she was quite gracious and good-humored about the whole thing. I turned to escape, only to run into Katie, who thought it was hilarious that I was a sputtering, blushing mess, even if she didn’t know why.

That wasn’t the last time I ever saw Katie, but it is kind of funny that my most vivid memory of her post-move was of someone else entirely.

Elderly Woman Behind the Counter

I’m thinking of a guy I used to know in New York, for most of the time I was there, and he’s one of the few people from my past that I don’t know what he’s doing. I’m Facebook friends with most of my old friends and exes (and friends with the friends of the exes in the cases where they don’t want to have anything to do with me), and while most of the people on Facebook are hardly on Facebook, I know they’re there, and I have at least a tangential connection to them.

But not him. I’m not even friends with his friends so I can’t get in touch with him secondhand. The aol email address I had for him is defunct. He’s completely gone.

He stopped talking to me the day Kate and I decided to get married. When we made the decision, I called my parents, and then I started to call friends. He was second on my list. In the five minutes it took me to hang up the phone after I called the first person, do something quick, like go to the bathroom or get a glass of water, and then call him, the first person had told their friend who told him. When he picked up the phone, he was furious that he found out about through a rumor. I can understand why he got upset, even though I didn’t do anything wrong, and I wouldn’t do anything different, even though calling him second resulted in me losing my friendship with him forever.

He considered us best friends, though, when I think about the six years I spent there, he’s rarely in my thoughts. I remember clearly my girlfriends, I remember clearly the women I wanted to be girlfriends, I remember clearly my drinking buddies and the guy whose apartment I would hang out in every Friday, getting stoned for several months before we went our separate ways. But I barely remember him.

And that’s weird because we hung out nearly every single weekend since the day I met him at a party in August of 2000. I enjoyed his company, even if his verbal filter was faulty and he was a little problematic (he identified perhaps too strongly with Rob from High Fidelity—the book and the movie). He was a songwriter who didn’t write songs, but my persistence in writing inspired him to get out his guitar and invite me to his apartment so he could show off. I recall, as vividly as I remember anything, one day, as we were walking underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side, seeing a pair of really old men sitting together on a park bench like an old couple and thinking that was where he and I were going to be in fifty years. We didn’t last five.

Every other person in my life has become the bones behind a character I’ve written (that’ll encourage my friends to read my writing, to see if they recognize themselves). And then there’s him. All that time and experience together, and all that time and experience apart, and I don’t miss him. What does that say about him? What does that say about me?

But now that I’m thinking of him, I want him to be happy. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of his happiness at the time was him, and I hope he finally defeated himself. I hope he grew up to be as cool as he’s always wanted to be.

The Night the Lights Went Out

I just had a random flashback. This happened during the great Eastern Seaboard Blackout of August 2003, and the lights had just gone out. They dismissed us from work because, really, what was the point in otherwise? I knew that I was not getting back home without electricity, so I did the only thing I could: I stopped in a bar and proceeded to give my best effort to keep their beer from getting warm. After I did all I could, I headed out, and through a series of coincidences and good timing, I ended up on the world’s most expensive ferry to Jersey City, and from there hopped on a bus home.

When I arrived, I found my upstairs neighbor and my roommate (the normal one, not the crazy one) smoking cigars on my front stoop. My upstairs neighbor asked me what I did when the lights went out, and I told him that I stopped for a drink. My roommate handed him five dollars because my upstairs neighbor was so sure that the first thing I would do in this situation would be to find alcohol that he wagered money on it.

That’s who I was back then.

Man’s Second-Best Friend

Instead of working on my book all late afternoon, I’ve been hanging out with Newcastle, who has been following me from room to room, giving me big, begging eyes for my attention. I let him curl up with me as I watched my one day off slip away from me. 

I love this cat. I love him so much. 

He crawled off of my lap and curled up in the corner of the couch to go to sleep, and he looks old. He is old. I can feel his bones when I pet him. It really hit me just now. He’s lived a lot longer than he was supposed to, with his heart condition and a liver that’s not where it’s supposed to be. But he and the other cat play chase still, even if Newcastle doesn’t really have the stamina to play long. 

When I saw my psychiatrist for the first time, and he asked me what my goals were, I told him, “I want to be as good as my cat thinks I am.” I don’t know if I’m there yet. I think Newcastle has unfairly high expectations. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone. But I know what I’m going to do for these years, these months he has left, When he comes up to me and demands affection, I’m going to put the notebook down and give it to him. This cat has brought me so much joy in my life that the least I can do is give him a happy retirement. 

Cool Spots

I’ve had a few days to think about this. On Thanksgiving, Dr. Darrel Lloyd, one of my professors and mentors at Hastings College, passed away at the age of 85 (I hope that’s a lesson to all you youngsters about the dangers of smoking). My contemporaries at Hastings who had even a passing crack at the English Department knew Dr. Lloyd. If you didn’t take one of his classes, he did an annual Christmas reading which was one part hilarious and two parts bolt-you-to-your-seat. He was a brilliant man, and funny, and kind, and all of the other things I’ve been hearing.  

But the thing that he was to me, as I’m sure he was to a lot of people, that isn’t really coming across in all of the memorials I’m seeing, is that he was hands-down the coolest professor at Hastings College, possibly ever. I can name a lot of cool professors, including Dr. Lloyd’s son, also Dr. Lloyd, as well as the father of one of my dear friends, and they were pretty great. But as far as turtleneck-and-tweed-jacket-wearing, slow-motion-strutting, lecturing-anywhere-in-the-room-but-behind-the-podium, laid-back-quip-at-exactly-the-right-moment, deep-sexy-voice cool, no one could beat Darrell Lloyd. He couldn’t have been cooler if he was in a band. No one will ever be that cool again. 

I won’t be in Hastings on December 15 to celebrate his life and his passing, but my heart will be there. Darrel Lloyd will be there too, in the back, slouched down on his seat, taking it all in and being the coolest ghost in the Midwest. 

Cat Burglar

Somebody stole my cat. Somebody I trusted. This was a friend, a confidant, and my roommate. And there’s nothing I can do about it.  

The cat burglar was able to pull off the heist by virtue of being more charming than I am. For starters, she talks to the babies, constantly. She doesn’t really say anything, she just calls them by the nicknames she’s given them and asks them the same question over and over again. She also sings, usually some old, familiar number with her nicknames replacing random lyrics—seriously, she removes all coherence from the songs. Most importantly, she plays with them. Between my long double-shifts and eagerness to write, coupled with my impatience at the way they’ll just sit there and stare at mousey-mouse, I don’t take the little toy out and tease them very much. Nicole will sense when they’re at maximum energy and go to town.  

So now Newcastle spends as much time with her as he does with me, sometimes even more. It’s clear he likes her better. I always took my cats for granted, seeing them as passive pets, and now I’m paying the price. And so I’m going to give her the $800.00 vet bill Newcastle just incurred and wipe my hands of the little traitor. She owns my cat now, but at least she lets me visit him. 

All by Myself

In my life, aside from my Facebook friends, I have three people I call my good friends. Two of them I see about once every other month, and the other is my roommate, who I see, if I’m lucky, once a week. I have two jobs where I interact with people regularly, and I have warmer relationships with some and simply professional relationships with others. During my time off, what little of it I get these days, I spend it writing, going for walks in the city, watching movies, and because he absolutely insists, cuddling with my cat. Someone recently expressed concern that I was lonely. 

I’m not. This is how I want my life to be. Maybe not working sixty-plus hours a week, but otherwise, like this. Writing is my passion. It means more to me than anything, and it’s a solitary pursuit. Also, I want to watch whatever dumb movie I want to watch without having to negotiate with anyone else. Walking in the city is something that can be done with others, and when she’s available, Nicole does it with me, and we have a great time. I like talking to people and hanging out, but I don’t need to, and after a run of long days at two jobs, I don’t particularly want to. 

I think maybe people overestimate the time Kate and I spent together. Toward the end of our marriage, I saw her for, at the most, an hour a day, and she used that time to check Facebook and play Charmed in the background. I was lonely for a long time with her—I didn’t have any friends at all when we were together—and I eventually grew to enjoy my own company. I’d been pretty solitary before that, even during my most social (2002-2003), and by this point with Kate, I had become a hermit. Not all of that has gone away. I don’t want it to.  

And so, if you want to hang out, that’s great. I love hanging out with you. If you don’t have the time, that’s too bad, but don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I now have some extra time to work on what I think is the best novel I’ve written so far.  

In short, I may be alone most of the time, but I’m not lonely. Not even a little bit. 

Uncle Larry

I’m terrible about keeping in touch with people. If you’re not on Facebook, and, hell, even if you are on Facebook, you’re not going to hear much from me. I say this because it’s been years and years since I’ve talked to my uncle Larry, and now he’s gone.  

For about a half-decade he was the most important man in my life. I was living alone in New York, and the holidays struck violently as they always struck, but Uncle Larry always threw a holiday party for his extended family the weekend before Christmas, and I was always invited. Even when it wasn’t Christmas, I visited him and his mother and father, living together in a tiny house in Linden, New Jersey, quite frequently, and, even though he had a plethora of kids of his own, he treated me like a son. This had been going on a while. When I was just learning language far too long ago, he and his wife, my late aunt Christine, would call me “Jeremiah James Murphy Dukes,” to which I’d reply, emphatically, “No Dukes! No Dukes!” This continued well into my adulthood. 

Larry Dukes was a kind, generous man who believed in the power of family, and he didn’t define family as rigorously as some might. He let people in constantly, even when those around him were skeptical. I’d tell you some of these amazing stories and how much brighter everybody’s life was because of his openness, but they’re not my stories to tell. 

I’m trying to think of more examples of what an incredible man my uncle was, but all I’m doing is choking up. Most of what I remember about him can be distilled into feelings—feelings of safety and joy and warmth, a feeling like I belonged (something especially precious when you’re living in a city that wants you to feel alone). I can’t describe how happy I was spending time in his house on Ainsworth Street. 

He’s had a lot of hardship in his life, which he endured alone because he never wanted to be a burden on others, like the idiot he was. But now I like to think that he’s finally resting. If Uncle Larry is reading Facebook in heaven (he never did on Earth, though, so why should that change?), I hope can see how much I love him. 

Post Script: A memory of Uncle Larry that sticks with me occurred at his father’s funeral. We were following the casket out of the church, and I found myself walking alongside him. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was—John Beck was also an incredible man—both for his loss and for all the loss he’d suffered in recent years. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, and I supported him, and I would do anything he needed. I wanted to tell him just how important he was to me. But there were no words that this writer could think of that would efficiently communicate that, and besides, this was a quiet time. So I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. He nodded. We’d said everything that needed to be said. I’ve been touched by that head nod for almost two decades.