What’re YOU Lookin’ At?

Random memory: This was in New York in the fall of 1998, and Shane and I were relaxing out by a construction sight that would become Trump Tower (or was near an already constructed Trump Tower—that part’s pretty hazy). We happened upon a large piece of broken drywall, and Shane decided that this was art. He always carried around his pastels, so he set to work bringing it to life.

Wearing shirts and ties, and me in my trench coat, Shane observed that I looked like a goombah, and, with nothing else to do, I put on a really bad Mafia accent and started harassing passersby, saying, “What’re YOU lookin’ at? What’d’you think this is, an aht gallery?” I started telling anyone who would listen about the artist and the drawing, using as many gangster cliches as we could think of, such as, “Look at that linewerk, it’s pretty good considerin’ both his thumbs are broken. Hey, he owed me money,” and “See the woman he’s paintin’? That’s Angelita, his one true love. Killin’ her was the hardest thing he ever had to do. Maybe next time you’ll keep it in yer pants, Angelita! You too, Joey, God rest yer soul.”

Eventually we had to go to work, that’s what we were doing in the Upper West Side to begin with, so we left his art leaning up against the fence of a construction site, with no illusions as to its fate. We chatted about it for a while, and we thought it would be fun to actually do the schtick in an art gallery, where Shane would actually paint something and I would taunt the gallery-goers. Keep in mind, this was when The Sopranos was just starting, and Analyze This (or its sequel) was a huge hit at the box office, so mobsters were huge at the time. That was one of many dreams that Shane and I had together those first few months I lived in New York, and like many, it just lived on in our imaginations.

Pitching a No-Hitter

I’m taking a class on how to attract a literary agent. I know I told myself that I wouldn’t put myself through this again, that I would be content self-publishing, but this opportunity came about, and I said, “You know what? I’ve got nineteen finished novels. I can take one off the schedule and shop it around.” So here I am. And it all went well until the back half of my first class, when the agent-teacher asked us to read our draft query letters to the whole class.

STUDENT: My book is a collection of literary short stories.

STUDENT: My book is a semi-autobiographical novel about fleeing Romania at the close of the Cold War.

STUDENT: My book is a biography of my grandmother, who came to this country and ended up in a Coca-Cola ad, and everything that happened after.

STUDENT: My book is a series of essays from the perspective of a comedian who has seen the talk-show circuit up close.

STUDENT: My book is a memoir of being a music video director of indie bands in the late eighties/early nineties.

STUDENT: My book is literary horror. [Literary horror is currently the hottest genre in publishing.]

STUDENT: My book is a scathing indictment of Reagan’s War on Drugs and how it permeates through our modern culture.

ME: My book is a superhero romance. [Record scratches. Someone drops a wine glass to the floor. The piano player stops playing. Crickets can be heard clearly in the distance.] I’ll see myself out.

The teacher, to her credit, treated my query with the same seriousness and focus that she treated the others, even the literary horror novel that she was drooling over, and I got a lot of great advice.

But I felt so, so silly, like I went to a big Halloween party, and I was the only one wearing a costume. I have, literally, no idea what I’m doing.

That Not-so-Fresh Feeling

I think one of the all-time highs of my time waiting tables was at the Village Inn, by the now-defunct mall in Hastings, Nebraska. This restaurant was open an hour past the last call of all the bars in the region, so Friday and Saturday nights after one a.m. were, I will say, quite colorful. One particular group of regulars owned a bar in nearby Blue Hill, and they appeared to be its biggest patrons. They were a rowdy bunch, but they tipped me in cases of beer, so, as a not-twenty-one-year-old, I was awfully permissive.

On the night in question, one of the women in the group, while waiting for her greasy breakfast food to arrive, emptied out her purse onto the table. She then grabbed every feminine hygiene product she had with plastic applicators, shoved them into her ears, her nostrils, and her mouth, like a pair of fangs, and flailed around, screaming, “I’m Tampon Lady! I’m Tampon Lady!” At that point, permissiveness wasn’t appropriate anymore, so my manager and I had to intervene. When she left, I quietly told them that it wasn’t my idea to come scold them, and I thought Tampon Lady was hilarious. Just like that, we were friends again, as evidenced by the case of beer under my car.

Even now, twenty-five years later, I wonder about Tampon Lady. Did she truly believe that with great power comes great responsibility? Is she still stalking the dark, unforgiving streets of Blue Hill, Nebraska on her hunt for justice? Did she pick up a sidekick, Pad Lad? Does she have a nemesis, The Red Tide? I will never know. I can only hope, as I gaze out into the full moon, that she is out there, the Absorbent Protector, the Stringed Crusader, looking up at that same moon, knowing that law and order is prevailing.

Tampon Lady, I salute you.

Lyfting of Spirits

As we pulled away from my apartment yesterday, George, my Lyft driver, asked me if I wanted to be in his movie. He was really insistent. I told him that I’d never acted before, and he told me that I just needed to say the line, “Where’s the bank?” He then let me know that he was just kidding, and that I looked like a bank robber in my mask, sunglasses, dark shirt, and leather blazer. My mask was covered in TARDISes, so I was the nerdiest bank robber around, but otherwise, I could see what he was talking about.

Normally I don’t like it when my drivers talk to me, but there was something special about ol’ George.

He told me that he’d done over thirty thousand trips, and he was getting really good at reading people. He said he liked to keep his mind sharp by talking to his passengers, and he was never wrong. He said he could guess how long I’d been in DC: Seven years. (I moved to the DMV area in 2008 and to DC proper in early 2019.) Then he said he could guess where I originated from, just by looking at me, even with the mask on: Portland. When I told him no, he said it was definitely Philly. (I’ve come from many places, but never a city that started with a P.)

He wasn’t even remotely fazed, which leads me to believe that he’s not never wrong when he talks to other passengers. We talked about a lot of things, like how, no matter how great a place, your typical teenager wants to get the hell out, how there’s nothing to see in Kansas, how the passenger he dropped off before picking me up was hitting on him, and how everyone calls him sir, and he, for one, is sick of it.

When he dropped me off at my destination, and I found a place to sit, I took out my phone and gave him all the stars, as well as a hefty tip. And when the app told me that my ride home was going to be George, I held my breath waiting, only to find out it was someone else named George, who gave me a respectful silence the whole way.

2020 Hindsight

The year 2020 was a terrible bust. A lot of people died for no good reason, politics somehow became even more toxic than it had been before, our government has proven itself to be incompetent and yet got (mostly) reelected in the fall, we haven’t been able to go on vacations, our economy’s collapsing without a reasonable federal response to keep it from getting worse, and we’re under quarantine for a disease that could be contained if people would stop being so stubborn and selfish.

I’m not here to pile on. Enough people are making anti-2020 memes and blog posts that my voice would add absolutely nothing. Even though the world is suffering right now, a lot of good things happened in my life, and not that 2021 is here, I want to look back on them in my effort to be a more positive person.

I found a job in the nick of time so I wasn’t a temp during the quarantine. I have health insurance, a(nother) 401K, holiday pay, and sick leave. My job is the least stressful job I’ve ever had, and it’s relaxing enough that I can stay focused on my current project when I’m not working.

I’ve saved up enough money to invest a large chunk of it for retirement. When I was married, my retirement was going to be funded by my rich father-in-law, but once that went away, I suddenly faced my encroaching sixties with fear and uncertainty. But I’m on the right track now, and I won’t have to worry about getting old.

Also, thanks to the job, I can purchase professional-looking covers for all of the novels I want to publish this year. My plan is that, under Jeremiah Murphy and James Newcastle, I am going to publish sixteen books in 2021, maybe more. Who knows what the plan will be in six months? This entire focus came to me in 2020. I know I won’t be a bestseller, or really much of a seller at all, but I will be out there, and anybody who’s curious can find me now.

I’ve written six novels in 2020, and I have an awesome website.

Because of Nicole’s class schedule and my reduced schedule, I have been cooking more, and I stopped being intimidated by it. I used to cook all the time, but then I quit for some reason and haven’t been able to get back into it. Thanks to this year, I have. After our “family dinners,” Nicole and I have been taking 2.5-mile walks around the area, which are an excellent bonding opportunity. Things were a little strained between us at the beginning of the pandemic, but in the summer, we found a groove and have slipped into it, and now things are perfect.

I get to spend a lot of time with my cat, who received a spotless bill of health in the fall. He’s actively sabotaging me as I try to work by being an aggressive cuddler, and I let him because he’s my buddy. He’s still pretty annoying, though.

I was furloughed and then let go from my job at The Container Store. As enriching and, at times, fun, as it was to work at the Reston store, the Washington D.C. store was a bit of a mismanaged mess, and I never really found my place there. It’s gone, and I don’t really miss it, and I can afford not to have this job now.

I built a lot of LEGO models and discovered a passion for it. I have space constraints and can only have one out at a time, but that gives me an excuse to break down models and rebuild them at a later date.

These are all minor things that are important to me and probably only me. They won’t comfort anyone who lost a job or lost a family member or friend to COVID—or even worse, came down with it themselves. But to me, they’re all huge. I was insanely lucky last year, and the last thing you can accuse me of is not being grateful enough for it.

The New Year is a construct. We are going into 2021 without any of our 2020 problems solved, and they won’t be solved for the foreseeable future. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a calendar rollover will make everything better. I’m getting through this with my cat, my roommate, and my dreams. I hope you can find something to hold onto that makes you grateful.

The Way You Shake and Shiver

On this night, twenty years ago, I broke a haunted house. To be fair, it wasn’t one of those insanely professional haunted houses like they have in Maryland, or one of those torture house, or even a Hell House (though I wouldn’t mind breaking one of those). This was an amateur production in a brownstone in Brooklyn, where whoever was throwing the party had access to all three floors, and it was mostly ghastly decorations, spooky music, and people jumping out at you from behind curtains.

When I was skinny, my celebrity twin was Norville Rogers, with the big chin, the patchy chin beard, and hair that seemed long and poofy, even after it just got cut. And yet, for some reason, this was the first year I decided I was going to dress as Norville, aka Shaggy, for Halloween. The costume couldn’t be any easier: just shave off my mustache and wear a green T-shirt and brown bellbottoms (failing that, any overly large pair of brown pants would do). To complete the ensemble, I went to the Times Square Disney Store with my best friend, Katie, and found a small hand puppet of Scooby Doo.

This led me to the party my brand new girlfriend wanted to go to in Brooklyn, the one with the haunted house. I wasn’t planning on going through it, as I have a pretty acute startle reflex, and I don’t like to be scared, especially among people I don’t know, but the haunted house was between the front door and the booze, so I put my head down and stepped inside. Not looking forward to embarrassing myself in front of the woman I was trying to impressed, I took it slowly and alertly. The music ratcheted up the tension, the curtains billowed, I braced myself, and, “BOO!”; the man in the ghost costume burst out. Everyone gasped in surprise.

But not me. I held it together somehow. Instead of reacting like I ordinarily would (screaming and crying), I jumped back, cowered, cradled little Scooby in my arms, and cried out in my best Shaggy voice, “Zoinks!”

The hipsters running the haunted house were not prepared for this. The ghost and his support staff all exploded in laughter, as did the group I had come in with. I’m sure that they reset themselves and were able to scare the next batch of partygoers, but because of my quick thinking and my pretty good impression of Casey Kasem, the group I was with made it to the party without any further scares. I had a few drinks, indulged in some Scooby Snacks (marijuana cigarettes, and you know that’s EXACTLY what Scooby Snacks were—why do you think they were so hungry all the time?), danced with my girl, and engaged in a heated argument with some douchebag about what was the second-best Soul Coughing album.

Sadly, no pictures of that costume survive.

Grim Grinning Ghosts Socializing

Halloween used to mean a lot to me. I used to dress up, even in college, taking the opportunity to be someone other than myself. Living in New York, I became an observer, heading down to the Village every year to catch the parade or the wake of the parade, watching everyone having pure, innocent fun. I have a very fond NSFW memory of the parade I think I’ll keep to myself as well. The last time I dressed up for Halloween was in New York, and I wore the same costume two separate years (more on that tomorrow).

Later, I married someone whose religion venerated October 31 as much as Christmas and Easter combined, and the day took more of a sacred tone. And that meant feasting. And, for a while, drinking. But that gradually dropped off, and Halloween became just another day of the year. I don’t have kids, I’ve never had trick or treaters coming to my door, I never had anywhere to go. October 31 just sort of comes and goes.

I don’t know how kids are going to trick or treat tomorrow, but I know they will. Signs in my neighborhood are promising contactless candy, and I have to say, I’m curious. Nicole and I are going to a house, where she tutors two children, to give them some candy in exchange for seeing their costumes. It’s a small thing, but it’s going to bring me joy again on this day, a joy which has been lost to me for a long time.

Which Way the Wind Blows

I was watching a teen movie last night, and the class pariah and the literal prom queen got thrown into a situation together, and by end of the movie, they were besties, spending their summer together. I asked the closing credits, “Yeah, but what happens when the school year begins?” I asked because I had gone through this.

Halfway through my tour of high school, I was an undiagnosed bipolar going through a hypomanic phase. Things were good. My friends were good, my life goals were good, my job was good (well, not the work part, but the cash for movies, comics, and coffee was good), my prospects were good. Things were good. I went into that summer prepared to hang out with my merry band of misfits and just being good.

But there was suddenly a new kid in the group, and no one had consulted me about him. I knew who he was, and he was kind of a douchebag. He was reasonably popular—not the prom king, but he had his own clique and minions. His clothes were too neat, his hair had too much product in it, and his confidence was just a little too high for my tastes. But a prominent member of our gang vouched for him, and we let him in.

He quickly ingratiated himself into the group. He laughed at all of our jokes. He made his own jokes. He seemed to get us when we were sure that we were the only people who got us. I started to look up to him, as he seemed, despite being my age, older. He had a lot more experiences under his belt, some of which was girls. He helped me refine my music palate, he introduced me to horror movies, and he occasionally found us some beer. He had gone, in a handful of weeks, from being someone I would never associate with to a really close friend.

And then school started again, and he was gone. He didn’t return our calls, he didn’t acknowledge us in the hallways, he completely disappeared from our lives, like he was never there to begin with. The friend who’d vouched for him in the beginning of the summer would get really angry if his name were even uttered, so our entire summer became this taboo thing that had never happened. I had a brief conversation with our missing friend a few weeks after this had happened, and he acted like there was nothing to be done about it. Like he wasn’t in control of the loss of our relationship.

I think about it as an adult who has since learned that popular kids are people too, and I wonder how much control he did have over his relationships. Social castes are real. Even I, who didn’t have a lot of regard for what people thought of him, had immense regard for what people thought of him. Later, as a senior, I had branched out and made friends and acquaintances with representatives of different social strata, but I was successful in doing that because I knew my place.

A long time ago I forgave my temporary friend for abandoning me because he didn’t belong with us. I had three short months to get to be his friend, and I value that time. Each life that has touched mine is precious, even if it was only for a little bit.

My mind is on that movie again. Will the prom queen abandon her friends when school begins? Or will she throw her hard-earned class status out the window for new relationships? She’s got a lot of thinking to do, which is, I guarantee, more thinking than the writers put into this screenplay.

The Taste of Defeat

Life is a series of mistakes. We rarely ever get it right the first time, and the true measure of us is how well we incorporate the lessons learned from them into our lives. Mistakes are how we grow.

But some mistakes are just really stupid. In 2005, I made one of these. At the time, I was working for a self-publisher in Bloomington, Indiana in a small room, editing. One of my coworkers was fond of selling his own image as a man of many talents. Today, that talent was gardening. Wrapped in a napkin, he presented the editorial office with a small, yellow vegetable. “This is a Thai ghost pepper. I grew it in my garden. It’s the strongest pepper in the world, and you probably shouldn’t ever eat it—”

“I could eat it,” I said from my desk without looking up.

“You probably shouldn’t. This is hot unlike anything you’ve ever known.”

“I’m from New Mexico,” I said, getting out of my chair and walking over to his desk, “nothing scares me.” And I plucked the pepper out of the napkin and bit it.

In the time it took me to stroll six feet and deposit the stem in the trash, it hit me. I couldn’t see my own face, but witnesses assure me that the shade of it was crimson. Pure, ignited, liquid napalm exploded in my mouth, and a sound that came from my belly was, “Gurgle.” I hustled to the break room, where we had a vending machine that sold milk (this is the only time in my careers that I have ever encountered such a thing), and I bought every eight-ounce carton of milk in stock and chugged it. That provided relief for the ten seconds at a time that the milk was pouring down my throat. Again, more insistently, my stomach went, “Gurgle,” and reading the subtext of that, I knew I had to find a restroom immediately.

I’ve lived through a lot of things in my life, and I survived them with the knowledge that this would pass. It seemed horrible now, but in a few hours, days at most, it would be a memory, and I’d be stronger. On that toilet, I didn’t have that knowledge. My eyes were streaming with tears, my ears were ringing, and my mouth had been reduced to something that existed to inflict pain. In short, every orifice had turned against me, and it would never be better, ever again.

Eventually the agony of those first minutes passed, but it took days for my digestive tract to forgive me. I was a changed man now, a humble man, a cautious man. I still believed that my coworker was full of shit, but I would heed his warnings in the future. The most important lesson I learned from this experience is the one that I pass onto you: if someone says don’t eat this, for the love of God, don’t eat it.

Oh, Mercy, Mercy Me

Here we are, six months into the pandemic, and a whole lot of people are acting like idiots. This spring, armed men invaded state capitals because they literally wanted to get a haircut. I was talking to someone about how this was the way life was now, and something occurred to me.

The last time that a major upheaval happened in our lives was nineteen years ago today. The whole country shut down under the weight of this horrible act of aggression. The peace and prosperity of the nineties was over (the prosperity had already ended pretty much as soon as Bush was sworn in, but that’s not how we remember it), and we were all going to make sacrifices of our old lives in the face of this new reality.

But in actuality, we didn’t. Life returned to normal pretty much instantly, and I’m not talking about extra airport security or Islamophobia or the incredibly unpopular president becoming a superhero to most of the country. I’m talking about day-to-day life. We could go to restaurants, go to movies, get the oh-so-important haircut. The words of comfort and aid from our president were not “Ask not what your country can do for you,” but rather, “Go shopping.” The MTA had an updated subway map out in about a week. We lost some of our freedoms, but we didn’t really miss them. The only people who gave anything up were those that rushed headlong into the recruiter’s office and found themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq, but, in general, those were the kinds of people who were going to join the military anyway, so no real difference.

Eighteen and a half years later, an invader came to our shores again to rob us of our way of life, and Americans, remembering how this kind of thing goes, were expecting a quick return to normalcy. We don’t like change.

But the fact of the matter is, everything changed, and it will be forever different. One day, in a year, maybe more, the stores may open up all the way again, and schools may be taking students in without having to go online again after a rash of infections pop up, but things won’t be the same. Many Mom and Pop stores will be forever shut down, to be replaced by a centralized, corporate structure. The kinds of people who are freaking out about masks will wield even more political power. We’re already seeing America’s billionaires getting exponentially richer over the past six months, and they’ll do anything not to lose their money. This is how life is now. We won’t be wearing masks forever, but the changes to the way we live our lives are fundamental. It is never going to be the way it was before.

And we, as Americans, can’t deal with that.