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.

An Orange on a Toothpick

I watched this movie about a dozen times, maybe more, before I turned twenty. After I turned twenty, I’ve seen it twice, and the second time was last night. Watching it again, I understood what a formative role it had in the development of my identity as a social being, something I’ve fallen completely away from. The movie is So I Married an Ax Murderer.

Aside from the extreme nostalgia I feel for the movie, it doesn’t really hold up. It’s very nineties, seen mostly in the outfits Anthony LaPaglia wore, but also in locations like a beatnik coffee house and pre-tech-boom San Francisco, as well as oversized posters and Nancy Travis. This was before Mike Myers really solidified his brand, so he was looser here and a lot more charming, but you could still see, peeking through, cringeworthy habits that would ultimately lead to The Love Guru. I’ll be honest, I was DMing a friend about San Francisco the entire time the movie was on, and I didn’t miss a thing because I had the whole thing memorized, from all of the butcher-shop flirtations to my second-favorite rendition of “Do You Think I’m Sexy.” (My first will always be The Revolting Cocks. Sorry, Mike.)

I cannot overstate how much I wanted to be Mike Myers in this movie when I was young, specifically Charlie Stewart with his sentimental creativity and energetic sense of humor. I had his hair, coincidentally, for many years. I was trying to be my funniest at this point in my life, and this movie helped me develop that. (And no, I’m not talking about screaming out in a terrible Scottish accent, “Head! Pants! Now!”) I was never as funny as Mike Myers could be, but I held my own. I could never quite work out how to use humor as flirting, but again, I held my own. That was a long time ago. These days, when I’m relaxed, I can still be funny, but I don’t have the full-body gusto that I used to have. This movie made me really miss it.

I think, if you’re a certain age, it’s a pretty great little movie. Maybe you can remember the days when you and your peers pretended to be his Scottish father (also Mike Myers because, if there’s one thing he can never do wrong, it’s Scottish), shouting at each other, or maybe you’ll be amused by the love story, such as it was. It was an original story, not based on overexposed, underdeveloped Saturday Night Live characters, so it had that going for it. Mostly, it was a movie where they got this budding comedian to screw around on camera for ninety minutes, and you know what? It can be an absolute joy to watch. Next, I think I have a duty to write short essays about other movies I’ve seen over ten times and how they influenced my life. That means Face/Off and The Highlander.    

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.

A Shining City on a Hill

I have lately been baffled by the eighties. I’m not baffled by the fact that they exist, or by shoulder pads. I’m baffled by the sheer reverence of that decade, and how it’s not going away. I remember people being nostalgic for the eighties in the nineties, and that was almost thirty years ago. The eighties are to the nineties, aughts, teens, and twenties what the fifties were to the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

Everything is the eighties now. Joker was set in the eighties for no real reason, Punky Brewster just came back, and let’s not forget Stranger Things and IT: Chapter One. We had a new She-Ra a couple of years ago, and a new He-Man is on its way. So is Beetlejuice 2. And those are just the examples I could think of off of the top of my head. Name an eighties band, and I’ll bet you a dollar they’re still touring. The eighties even gets all the credit for Saved by the Bell (which also just returned) when that show mostly aired in the nineties.

Like the fifties, they were far from idyllic. The Cold War, which had become less of a priority in the late seventies, got cranked up by a president so insane that we weren’t sure if we were all going to die in a nuclear war. AIDS and homophobia were pretty big back then. The hatred of government that Reagan fostered led to a lot of government services shutting down, especially mental health, leading to a lot of the visible homelessness we’ve seen since. Deregulation turned our beloved children’s entertainment into commercials for toys that my parents couldn’t afford to buy.

I don’t really get the fondness for the eighties because I missed that decade while it was going on. While my peers were watching John Hughes movies and listening to Duran Duran, I was watching Airplane and the Marx Brothers and listening to “Weird Al” Yankovic and the Beatles. I discovered culture in the nineties, so that’s my decade, a decade that gets no love whatsoever. My warm fuzzies come not from leg-warmers and big hair but from heavy layers, chokers, and Doc Martins. Imagine my delight when Captain Marvel took place in the nineties, and her secret identity was a NIN T-shirt.

I know why the eighties were so popular: they were a colorful time with catchy music, easily identifiable fashion, and memorable tropes that are easy to replicate. The nineties are really hard to sum up in an easy image. There was grunge and gangster rap, but there was also the rise of boy bands and Brittany Spears. There was the Real World—that was uniquely nineties. It was kind of a weird decade. If you tried to pinpoint something that was the aughts, for example, you have what? Low-rise jeans? A long series of economic recessions? I guess the eighties really was the last decade you could draw a caricature of and have it be on-the-nose.

Nostalgia just is. I’m not going to talk about the dark side of it because that’s not what this post is about. If neon leotards and “Tainted Love” are what make you happy, then enjoy it. There’s so much in the world that makes us feel awful that you should stick to the thing that causes you joy. For me, that means pulling on my flannel and listening to Nirvana. Just be happy.

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.

This Didn’t Have To Happen

Someone I know just died from COVID. We weren’t close friends—she was someone I knew from when I was wrangling editors at Author Solutions twelve-to-fifteen years ago. But she was one of my top editors. She was efficient, accurate, as well as friendly, funny, kind, and a little flirty. We’ve been Facebook friends since I left, and when I tried, unsuccessfully, to reignite my freelance editing career a year and a half ago, she was there to walk me through it to the best of her ability, even though we really hadn’t talked in an incredibly long time.

I don’t know the details, like, at all, but I know she came to the United States to visit someone, a friend or family, and she got sick and died. She was at risk, so it didn’t take long.

I’ve been taking this outbreak pretty seriously for the past six months (the first month, no so much), and I’ve been horrified watching the infection rate and the death toll rise while our populace walks around like nothing is happening. I haven’t been personally affected by it while some of my Facebook friends have been infected and recovered—as much as it’s possible to recover from this disease. But I’ve not seen anyone I know die, especially not someone I really liked.

I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about her family—both genetic and adopted, who will most certainly miss her because she was one of the most sparkling editors I’d ever met (and editors aren’t people you’d really describe as “sparkling”).

But I feel this bubbling inside, and I apologize because I try my hardest to avoid using language like this in my feed, but fuck you, coronavirus for everything you’ve done to us this year. Fuck you Donald Trump, along with everyone else who doesn’t take this seriously/thinks it’s a conspiracy. If you’re one of those people, please unfriend me. Don’t say goodbye, don’t drop in and tell me why I’m wrong about COVID-19, just go. My country is a plague state that killed this incredible woman, and it’s all your fault.

And good bye, Karen. I know we weren’t close, and we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives, but now that you’re gone, I really miss you.

That Darn Cat

Newcastle just got back from the cardiologist, where I just spent a lot of money to get him checked out. They diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. Six years ago. When the doctor called me after the appointment today, it was clear that he was shocked that Newcastle was still alive (the usual survival after a diagnosis like this is a year, two tops), much less in great shape. At sixteen, there is no sign of arthritis, and he sleeps a lot, but he loves to play, with Henry and with the ribbon-on-a-string, he eats really well, he has no problem in the bathroom, and his coat looks like it’s been blown out recently by an expensive stylist named “Grigio.”

There’s something special about this cat, I tell you.