Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Monday, February 27, 2006

I'm Here!

Drove up for three days and finally got in yesterday. I have no furniture and everything I plucked out of the car has been tossed to the floor in dispiriting and undifferentiated heaps. But I started a bank account today and I just did a tour of the neighborhood (fresh fruit on the corner! grocery store, coffee shop, AND cool local bar in easy walk!) and I feel frankly ecstatic. The only downside at the moment is that I don't have computer access in the apartment so I'm paying 20 cents a minute to type this at my local UPS store, so I'd better wrap this up. Also, I'm sleeping literally on the hardwood floor in a sleeping bag, and the closest laundromat is two blocks away, and it's pretty darn cold outside. But I'm actually surprised at how happy I already am. Just thought y'all should know. I'll be online again, with real updates and detailed stories, when the cable company gets around to helping us. It may be a few days.

Friday, February 24, 2006


I've sold all my CD's, mailed all my books, cleaned up my room, and the only thing left is to pack the car. I am now going to unplug the computer. Good-bye, y'all! See you in Manhattan!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A Lament in Verse

In a world where unique
New devices each week
Are presented at minuscule cost,
Some woman or gent
Should attempt to invent
A new cell phone that cannot get lost!

Every new one's designed
With a near-human mind
That's so cunning, you cannot outflank it.
And they've gotten so small,
You can't see them at all,
Even if they're just tucked in your blanket.

My first, I remember
Was bought last September---
And today I just bought number four.
It has never been fun
To rebuild from square one,
And I simply can't take any more.

The technology's known
For a never-lose phone.
We've got gene splicing, spacecraft, and SETI.
So let's make phones wireless,
And thoroughly tireless:
Just up and implant them already!

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

That Broken Thingy Is Fixed Now, Probably

My friend Jason pointed out that no one has been able to post comments on my blog. I think I just dejigamahooed the proper dealybob, so everything should now be cromulent.

Monday, February 20, 2006

You Know How Life Sucks But Then It Keeps Sucking?

On top of my other stressors, I seem to have lost my cell phone. If you're reading this, and I know you, please e-mail me your phone number just in case I need to reassemble my entire social life. That address again:

This is already the sort of Monday that gives Mondays their bad reputation.

I Almost Forgot in All the Armageddon . . .

Just so you all know, I defended my dissertation on February 15th. It went fine, and I went from being ABDD (All But Dissertation Defense) to DFAPP (Doctor For All Practical Purposes). It becomes official in April, Lord willing and I get all the signatures and papers in. To quote my major professor, "At best, this part of the process is a joke. This is one of those times." My committee members all loved my book, couldn't wait for it to get published, and I walked out feeling like the unusually talented writer I apparently am. I also walked out with a list of agents to look into (Warren Frazier, Alex Glass, Sloan Harris, Amy Williams, Irene Kolnick, Gail Hochman---I'm writing this all down so I have someplace to look in case I lose the napkin) and a rather strange feeling of calm. No postpartum depression, no relief per se; just a quiet sense of having checked off a long-awaited thing-to-do from some list of uncharacteristically responsible behaviors. Anyway, I just thought I'd mention it. I await the requisite mazel tovs and skoals.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Moving Story That Hasn't Yet Ended in Arson

If every time that something in life that should be simple turned out bizarrely difficult, and I reacted each time by waving my fist impotently at the skies, by now I’d have the wrists of Popeye and you’d be seeing me at 3 am on ESPN2 in the World’s Strongest Forearm Competition, arm-wrestling Glandulor, the robot that made Deep Blue’s high school years hell.
You see, I haven’t left yet. Here was the plan:

1.) Get a hitch and rent a small U-Haul trailer on Friday the 17th.
2.) Pack and load my small complement of things on Saturday.
3.) Start driving on Sunday; get to Manhattan by Tuesday.

But it’s Sunday as I write this and I still haven’t moved box one. My problems actually started a few entries ago, when because of a failure to do arcane and ill-explained paperwork (every ADD sufferer’s nightmare), my bank card stopped functioning as a credit card and now only works in ATMs and in debit-only arrangements—which means I can only “swipe my card” at major supermarkets. Everywhere else I have to bring cash with me. I’ve been paying a lot of ATM fees, but otherwise it’s not so bad.
Turns out there’s an additional wrinkle: every organization I’ve ever set up an automatic payment with can no longer access my money. This has had an upside: All the places I was going to call up and end relations with are breaking up with me instead. I even just got a huffy letter from AOL announcing the termination of my service, and I thought, “Jesus! AOL? I haven’t used them in, like, years! How long has THAT particular worm been in my lower intestines?” But more troublingly, I also got a text message from my cell-phone company saying, “We couldn’t access payment. Please contact us.” I called, and said, “It’s a long story, but I’ll get right back to you, I swear.” Then I guess I forgot to get back. As you know, I’ve been kind of busy, what with graduating, packing, and essentially recreating my entire life from the ground floor any day now.
And yet, believe it or not, my phone’s not the actual problem.
The actual problem started when I tried to get a hitch on my car. The 4 by 8 trailer is a wonderful thing—just the right size for everything I own—and it only costs $82. Installing the hitch, on the other hand, was going to run about $200. That’s still about right. Since I’m down to a trifle over $3000 in my account (which, lest anyone panic, includes February’s rent on the apartment I’m moving to), I’ve been trying to keep the cost of my entire move as far south of $500 as possible. Even an overpriced hitch keeps me under budget, so okay.
So I dropped off my ‘94 Acura Integra LS at two on Friday and loitered while they took the car, backed it up a steep incline, and proceeded to . . . well, I’m not sure what they proceeded to do. It took forever, and the only part of it I saw was after forty-five minutes had passed, and I thought, “What the hell’s taking so long?” I went back and saw a young man eye-to-tailpipe with my car, manipulating an intriguing winchlike device that had a hitch attached to it. He twisted a knob, and the car went up. He pulled a lever, and the hitch swiveled slightly. And then he re-twisted and the car went down. He seemed to be working out some kind of imperfect math through trial and error, and I felt it best not to interrupt.
I went back inside and tried to divert myself with a few crosswords. Finally, the man came out and said, “Sir, is your car a hatchback?”
“Yes,” I said, resisting the urge to point out that he’d been working six inches from the hatch in question for over an hour and probably wasn’t blind.
“I’m sorry, sir. They don’t make hitches for that model. We can’t attach one.”
“Um . . .so I can’t get a trailer?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. And I think I heard a cosmic toilet flush as I realized how much I was going to have to leave behind. So long, futon! Goodbye, exercise bike! I’ll be camping in my own room for a few days. Where’d I put that sleeping bag . . . ?
They must have seen my stricken face, because the woman behind the counter (who was, no doubt, looking at a Post-It Note that the boss taped to the phone reading Always Suggest An Up-Sell!) said, “You could order one of our smaller trucks.”
“I need to take the car with me because I haven’t sold it yet. What’s the smallest truck I can take that can pull a car?”
“The fourteen-footer,” she said.
“And how much will that cost, from here to New York?”
She tapped some keys. “Seven hundred and eighty for the rental, plus a hundred and fifty for the blah blah blah blah blah,” she said, gradually dropping in volume and fuzzing out altogether, because I stopped listening shortly after “plus.” Throw in gas and I simply don’t have that kind of money.
So now I’m on Plan C, which works in three steps: 1. Mail books, DVDs, games, and the like to myself fourth class. 2. Bring the real essentials—clothes, computer, TV, my scotch collection—along with me in the car. 3. Ruthlessly throw out anything that doesn’t fit. You may see me tomorrow asking my neighbor if she can loan me a big shovel. And of course, I can’t do any of this until Monday, because step one is so dependent on the damn postal service.

But there was actually another problem as well. On Friday, I came slap up against a wall on my Effexor prescription. See, a few months before this, the woman at the Student Counseling Center prescribed me Effexor in what finally seemed like the right dosage. That is, it was the right dosage to avoid panic attacks. It clearly wasn’t doing jack for my ADD. I missed the follow-up appointment a month later, she was forgiving and made a second follow-up appointment for two weeks in the future, and I missed that a mere hour.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t help you any more. Our policy is quite clear and you’re responsible to make all your appointments.”
“But . . . I have ADD! These appointments are always two or three weeks in the future! I’ve tried everything—writing the appointment on my computer’s screen saver, getting a calendar, getting an alarm . . .none of it works because by the time the appointment is due, I’ve already gotten so bored of looking at the reminder that I don’t even read it anymore. But you know what WOULD help? A phone call the day before the appointment to remind me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I understand your problem, but we don’t do that. What would be ideal, of course, is if you got the right medication and it helped your ADD so you didn’t miss anymore.”
Catch, thy name is Twenty-two.
Anyway, she wrote me one final prescription for a month’s worth of pills, and told me to go to the Thagard Student Health Center and work with the counselor there instead. “And don’t wait until the last minute!” She cautioned me. I tried. I contacted Thagard a week later and discovered that I needed a referral . . . from the Student Counseling Center. So I went back and told my ex-shrink, and she said she’d get right on it. That took a week.
Note in hand, I ricocheted to Thagard and discovered that they didn’t have anything until February 16th—the day after my dissertation defense. I was supposed to be packing that day, but for my own mental health I could take a break. So I said sure.
This whole time, of course, I was going through my last prescription.
On the 16th, I met with the shrink at Thagard and said, “I need a refill of my prescription. I’m literally on my last pill and I need a refill today or I’ll start getting
She gave me the blankest stare I have ever received. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t understand. I can’t just give you a prescription when I’ve only met you once this first time. Why are you coming to me a day before you leave town?”
I explained, and she quietly called the other uptight shrink. She reminded this irritant who I was and explained my problem. All I remember from her end of the conversation was, “ . . .So you’re dead set against it? Okay then . . .” And she hung up and looked at me helplessly.
I sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I lived without Effexor before, I guess I can do it again. But I’ll be going through withdrawal, starting today. Can you tell me what to prepare for?”
She said I’d be dizzy and disoriented, I might feel sick, and I was going to be very uncomfortable as I felt pressure on nerves all throughout my body. But it was nothing life-threatening and that I shouldn’t ultimately worry. “And how long will this last?” I asked. About a week.
Chastened, I left. This is what happens to bad boys who don’t meet their appointments! But then I thought of the trip ahead, and I called her back. “So let me get this straight. Florida State is willing to let me go off my medication and go into a week of withdrawal symptoms on the same day that I’m going to be packing and driving a trailer all the way up to New York City?” I didn’t actually say “lawsuit,” but I think the intimation was clear, because she said, “I’d urge you to go back to the Student Health Center and make your case.”
Happily, this case was, in fact, finally made in an end run to the only other shrink on staff, who not only gave me a month’s prescription, but another 15 days of a half-prescription, “Just in case you don’t find a doctor and have to taper off.” See? How hard was that?

Unfortunately, I got my prescription at 5 pm, which means that the Thagard Health Center, which offers reduced-rate drugs, was closed. I’d have to go to CVS or Walgreen’s and get just a few pills to tide me over until Thagard reopened on Monday. On my way to do this, however, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t pay for the drugs with my card (no credit, remember?), so I needed to find an ATM. I found one on campus—one of those retro-style ones that actually ingests your entire card—and withdrew a hundred dollars. (And paid a $2 fee. Robbery! Even the check-cashing places only charge one percent.) Then I went to CVS, asked for four pills, and—since they told it’d be about fifteen minutes—I wandered next door to Border’s bookstore. I came back to CVS, paid the lady, and walked out. Whew! Done! Before returning to my boxing and packing, I decided to relax with a salad at a nearby restaurant.
Halfway into the salad, I actually had a twinge of withdrawal: a feeling I’m actually pretty familiar with because I get it every time I forget to take my daily pill. It’s a weird sensation, as if someone has taken static and injected it into your spine right at the neck, and it’s working its way through your body like a mildly electric spider bite. Oops! I realized. Forgot to take the pills I just bought! So I checked . . . and I couldn’t find them. Not in my pockets. I ran out to the car. It took some digging around—I’m unspeakably cluttered—but there was nothing there.
How dispiriting! I hate losing things, and losing a bottle of $4 pills is quite the blow. But the good news, it struck me, was that since I’d only asked for four pills, I still had 26 I could buy. So I dashed back to CVS, intending to cannibalize more of my prescription.
As soon as I got there, the woman behind the counter said, “I thought I’d see you again. You forgot to take your pills with you.”
Aha! Happy ending. So, pills in hand, I bought a bottled water to take them with. And when I opened my wallet, I realized my bank card was missing.
Oh, shit, I realized. I never took it out of that damn ATM. Since this isn’t New York City, probably someone saw it in the machine, turned it in to the nearest business—in this case, the FSU Bookstore—and they were waiting for me to pick it up. Except again, it was after five, and the FSU Bookstore would be closed. Better call my bank to make sure there’s no activity on the card.
So I pulled out my cell phone and saw that I’d gotten another text message from my phone company, announcing a temporary suspension in my service. Because, you know, they couldn’t access my bank card.

[pause for drinking.]

On Monday, when the bank is open, when the post office works, and when all the businesses I owe money to are available to me, everything will be all right. (And I swung by the bookstore today and discovered that they didn’t have my card, but that’s only because the machine simply sucks them back up and keeps them if no one responds in time.) But for now, there is no joy in Mudville. I realize I start the process of leaving tomorrow, but you know what? I just don’t feel like packing right now, goddammit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Report shows Cheney has been linked to leaks . . .

. . . coming from an old man's face and chest!

Yes, it's a cheap shot, but I can't resist. It was the first joke I thought of, and so far no one else has come up with anything similar on the talk shows. For those who haven't heard (and where the hell have you been? You've been missing quite a frenzy), Dick Cheney accidentally shot a 78-year-old friend of his in the face and chest while quail hunting.

What kills me most about this whole situation is that it really is comeuppance for this administration. A lot of folks on the crazy-extreme left are trying to make this whole thing a metaphor for the sins of the Bush White House. Admittedly, at least one of the conspiracy theories---that they waited for 18 hours to get the word out because Cheney was drunk---seems quite a plausible explanation for their actions. But most of the claims are really a stretch, and try to turn a simple accident into something nefarious and frightening.

But honestly, you don't even need to squeeze that hard to see the poetry. The fact is, Cheney made an embarrassing blunder, and it would have blown over in seconds if he'd simply admitted an error immediately. But this White House's response to everything is the same every time: a.) They say "trust us--we know what we're doing." b.) Then when something goes wrong, they try to cover it up or hope it goes away. c.) They resist being investigated by people (like, say, the local police) who need to do their job. d.) Then they provide a lame cover story that has tons of holes in it. (Current holes include: if the man was "lightly peppered," why was he in ICU for two days?; if he's in good health, why are they leaving bits of shot in his body instead of operating? ; and how the hell do you get 200 pieces of shrapnel in a guy if he's 30 yards away?)

Even with the press playing softball (they're all taking the report at face value, they're calling the shotgun a "pellet gun," and at Slate they even seem to be buying the idea that the whole thing was Whittington's fault, which would surprise anyone who's taken a gun safety course), this is bound to make the administration look callous, vicious, and arrogantly above the law. And above all, obviously and hilariously inept. You can't say they haven't had it coming.

This administration is supposed to be great at managing the media, but they're not; they're great at creating a cult of personality, which is not quite the same thing. This means that they've been able to get most of their early policies enacted by saying, "Never mind the naysayers---trust us! There's an emergency (in Iran, in taxes, in Social Security) and our plan will fix it!" And huge phalanxes of discipline-beaten yesmen line up to swear that black is just a kind of white in our post-9/11 world. It's when they have to deal with the consequences of their terrible misgovernment---not just Iraq, but Katrina, Medicare D, Social Security, and really every major thing this administration has attempted---that they get embarrassed and hope that if they repeat their talking points loud enough, no one will notice the misshapen orc behind the curtain.

Because no one can actually prove Iraq is entirely bad, Katrina was the first time this administration actually got caught with their pants down, claiming everything was all right when things were visibly wrong, and claiming that Bush was on the job when there was footage of him still on vacation and clowning with a country singer. With any luck, this will be another version of the same thing. I look forward to the next press gaggle with Scott McClellan. Lately they've actually started calling him on his bullshit. I never thought I'd see the day.

And I reiterate: this whole thing would be nothing if Cheney had a conscience or a sense of responsibility and simply did the right thing: called the police immediately, answered police questions like every citizen should, and then gave a statement to the media where he admitted to having made an error and said he was worried about his friend. But Cheney isn't warm or human or decent, and now even an idiot can see it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Notes Toward a FAQ

1.) What is Bourbon Cowboy?

It’s the blog of David Ellis Dickerson, a writer and recent transplant to The City.

1.1) Why a blog?

I used to send out a Dave Update of my doings (and humor pieces), but I ran into so many people who were interested in getting e-mails that the list got really unwieldy. This blog, alas, officially supersedes the old Dave Update list—and I say “alas,” because I used to send out entire stories and complete humor pieces, and I’d rather not do that on this site, for fear that it will be hard to sell a piece to an editor if it already has a web presence. So I imagine this will consist of shorter pieces, or pieces that, for whatever reason, don’t seem publishable.

1.2.) Why is it called Bourbon Cowboy?

Because I like drinking and I dress like a cowboy.

1.3.) Are you an alcoholic or something?

Actually, my limit is almost always two drinks, unless someone else is buying. That way I’m still sober enough to get home safely. But I was raised a conservative evangelical Christian, and as an ex-fundy I now find the very ambience of a decent bar is endlessly thrilling to me. It’s like swearing: it has the odor of naughtiness without actually being evil, and I indulge in both tirelessly. (My favorite thing is single malt scotch, a single shot of which is so strong that you can nurse it in the same time that a less selective person can down three indifferent beers.)

1.4.) Why do you dress like a cowboy?

It was a look I toyed with on the cross-country trip that forms my book Travels With Ritalin. It was just for fun, and I wasn’t particularly wedded to the concept when I started. But near the end of the trip, money problems forced me to hang out in my home town of Tucson, Arizona for three weeks, and I realized how much I missed the Southwest and enjoyed being associated with its culture and music and whatnot. So I’ve been dressing this way ever since.

1.5.) How’s that working in New York City?

I barely rate a second glance. I was actually hoping to be more supercilious, but I underestimated the jadedness and/or insularity of the New Yorker-on-the-street. I get the occasional “hi, cowboy,” but no one has laughed and pointed or anything. (Admittedly, I spent much of my time in Chelsea, which may have a higher tolerance than, say, the Upper West Side.)

2.) What’s your new address and phone number?

I’m in Washington Heights, and if you’ve stumbled on this site accidentally, that’s all you need to know. For further into, contact me privately and I’ll tell you if I know you. Possible exception if you’re a lovely woman with a cute picture somewhere; I’m not ruling anything out.

2.1.) When are you moving?

The current plan is to move on February 17th, right after my last Friday in Tallahassee. I might leave on Saturday or Sunday, depending on how long it takes me to pack.

2.2.) Will you drive up, fly up, hire movers, or what?

Good question. I just checked MapQuest, and it looks like driving will only require 17 hours on the road, which is as nothing to an inveterate road-tripper such as myself, who just drove the entire length of I-10 and back, often spending as many as 14 hours behind the wheel with only nominal breaks. So I should be able to drive it in two days easily, putting me in Manhattan on the 19th or thereabouts.

2.3.) Do you have a job?

No. Thanks for reminding me. But I do have two books to sell, a third almost completed, a nascent Ph.D. in literature, an entire phalanx of extremely talented and generous friends the area, and—maybe most importantly—office experience. I expect to start by temping, which at least two other temps have assured me will pay enough for me to make my relatively modest (by New York standards) rent.

2.4.) Why are you moving?

That’s where the opportunities are. I have three goals I’m trying to pursue while I’m here: a.) to make a living as a writer (especially travel and humorous features for magazines); b) to write and perform comedy again (with an eye, like everyone else, on The Daily Show); and, in what may be the most quixotic dream ever, c.) to write and perform country-western styled hip-hop. Even if this last dream fails (and I can’t imagine it failing utterly), the story of my pursuit should make one hell of a funny book.

3.) What are those books you’ve written?

I’m currently peddling a nonfiction humor book called Travels With Ritalin, about my trip across the entire length of I-10 in June and July, right before Katrina hit. I also have two other books very close to completion: Songs From the Dictionary, a collection of light verse about unusual words I’ve run across, and By Dick!—a satirical novel retelling the medieval voyages of St. Brendan in search of America.

3.1) Wait—weren’t you writing a novel about the greeting card industry?

Yes, I tried, and it sucked. It turns out I don’t do realism very well, and the long-range planning and structure required to write a conventional novel is simply beyond me. (By Dick, like Travels With Ritalin, is a picaresque, which is a much easier plot for me to handle) Which is why I spent six years in grad school trying to write a novel for my dissertation and wound up, after six years, writing a book-length essay that’s essentially “What I Did On My Summer Vacation Three Months Ago.” My muse is subtle, but insistent: I work short and punchy.

3.2.) But . . . all that work! It would make such a great story? Are you giving up on it?

I may try it as a screenplay, since goodness knows “romantic comedy set in the greeting card industry”is a concept that damn near sells itself. And I know what’s wrong with the current book, so I have ideas of how to fix it. The chief flaw of my current draft is that the protagonist is wrong—I wrote about a nice young guy, when the comic conceit all but demands a bitter middle-aged one—and the conflict was one I wasn’t committed enough to. I had my protagonist trying to live whimsically and idealistically while being clamped down on by the un-funny realities of nine-to-fiving. Which means it was a story about an idealist being beaten into submission. Not funny, it turns out. If I change it into an arc about a beaten-down guy learning to love simple jokes again, it’ll be a lot more fun to write. But you know what’s more fun? Anything except a novel. So it’ll have to wait until I get a few other books out of the way and I have leisure to fall in love with it again.

Experiencing Turbulence

On the last day, since I was leaving in midday, Ryan went off to work and left me his key. “Lock the door on your way out, then just slip it under the door before you leave,” he said. So I spent the morning packing, collected my things from all around the apartment (my crap expands to fill up available space, as if it’s osmosing) and then I got a little distracted trying to find a book to take with me. Margaret Atwood? Stanislaw Lem? Carl Sagan? Ryan has a large bookshelf and a lot of options.

I finally settled on Lem, zipped everything up, gave a cursory glance around the place, and walked out about ninety minutes early, so I’d have a little leeway once I got to the airport. I went out, locked the door, slipped the key back into the apartment, and walked out into the afternoon.

A few beats up 8th avenue, I realized I’d better call Ryan and say a final goodbye. So I checked my pockets. Nothing. Troubled, I stopped in a deli and emptied every cranny I’d ever thought of filling. There were a few surprises—two containers of dental floss!—but no phone. Then I remembered that I’d plugged it into the wall in Ryan’s apartment in order to charge it for the trip home. Because, you know, it’s the only phone I have, it’s the only way people have of getting hold of me, and it contains every phone number I know. So naturally I’d need to have it charged. It’s that important.

So, having locked myself out of my own phone-life, I had a moment of real fear. But logic took over. Hey, I thought. No problem! It’s a pain, but I’ll just call Ryan and see if he can let me in over his lunch break or something. Oh, wait—call him with what? And without my phone I also didn’t know his number. Thanks a lot, logic. Way to help.

The choice was actually pretty easy: there was absolutely nothing to do except to e-mail Ryan once I got back and ask him to FedEx me the phone. In the meantime, what were the odds I’d need the phone anyway? The only time I’d call anyone would be when I was finally home, and I could just as easily e-mail them. And if anyone called me, they’d probably be calling either to invite me somewhere or just to chat. Either way, I could wait a day or two.

So I sighed and let go. There was nothing else to do, and in that state of mind I got aboard the bus for LaGuardia.

Once I was past the grief over my cell phone, and in the giddy expansiveness of having found a place to live, I decided to splurge a little and buy a book for the trip home: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I’d been eyeing for years and which finally beckoned to me from a bookstore shelf in LaGuardia. So I took it to the counter and handed them my card.
The woman swiped, then paused. There was a beep. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But your card has been declined.”

I think I handled it pretty well, considering I was in a foreign state and about to embark on a huge expensive move that would cost everything in my budget. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Two days ago, according to this banking slip, I had six thousand dollars in my account. Could you try that again?” Dear God, I thought. Had I really spent that much in two days? How many 3-dollar hotdogs had I actually consumed? No, that’s impossible. So what about identity theft? . . .and if my account is empty, won’t my apartment check bounce? So I might be broke and homeless, and this whole trip was a huge waste . . .

“Uh, could you try again?” I said.

She did. Again it was declined. “Maybe you should call your bank,” she said.

“I would,” I said, “but I don’t have a phone.”

“I don’t know what to say then,” she said.

Sadly, I returned the book to the shelf, feeling mugged and dizzy. What the fuck had happened? How suddenly doomed was I, anyway?

I had an hour before my flight, and I checked my wallet: 11 dollars and seven quarters. But seeing the quarters, I thought, “Wait a minute. I can call my bank from a regular old-school type of land phone!” Alas, seven quarters wouldn’t even cover a call to information, and I was trying very hard to save the little money I had left for gas on the drive home. “My bank is SunTrust,” I thought. “Maybe their service line is 1-800-SunTrust.”

I tried it, and damn if it didn’t work! I got a SunTrust representative, and she quickly told me what was wrong: I needed a new card. “We sent you a letter about it a month ago.”

I remembered it, except that the letter had made no sense. It had scolded me, and told me I needed to activate my new card. But I’d just gotten a new card three months earlier, I HAD activated it, and it was good for two years, so I just assumed they’d made an error. I’d made a note back then to the effect of “call bank to figure out what’s up” but I hadn’t gotten around to it. In my defense, I should point out that it’s Oscar season, so I’ve been watching a lot of movies.

“I never got it,” I said. “Why do I need a new card?”

Apparently—and would it have killed them to explain this in the original letter?— SunTrust had just switched credit providers, and the old cards couldn’t be used at credit sites unless they were replaced. It had nothing to do with me or my odious credit rating.

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me that I still have all my money?”

She was.

“And it still works in ATM machines as a debit card?”


“So the only thing I can’t do is run it as credit?”

That was the size of it.

Well, for pity’s sake! That’s the kind of card I’ve always wanted anyway! If you don’t have credit, you dramatically reduce your risk of debt! Who needs a new goddamn card? I’d never wanted all the features. Now if they could just remove the annoying holographic dove I’d be in beer and skittles.

What’s more, it couldn’t have happened at a better time, since in a week and a half I’ll be in another city working with another bank anyway.
“Thank you so much,” I told the woman. “And by the way, never change this number. It totally came in handy today.” Then I hung up, went to an ATM, and bought my book. If they’d had one, I would have also bought a T-shirt that read “Fuck You—I’m Solvent!”

As an afternote, when I finally got home and e-mailed Ryan, he wrote back almost immediately and said, “I’ll FedEx it right away, but there’s a space on the form for a phone number. What should I put? :) ” We settled on the phone number of the phone being FedExed. And Ryan, if you have the receipt, keep it for me: it’s such a postmodern, self-referential thing to do that with the right paperwork I might get us an NEA grant.

Myths of the City

After that a weird thing happened: I ate something that disagreed with me and I got really sick. So sick that I spent the afternoon of Tuesday in orant pose near a toilet, and I cancelled my other two look-sees. And that’s how I wound up with the apartment I have. There were eleven others on my list that I didn’t even see. That’s been my experience with New York so far: it’s a zillion times easier than everyone warns you.

Example: Everyone was helpful. Absolutely everyone. During my five-day stint I saw only one rude New Yorker, and he was provoked. He was trying to back up in a tiny street, and the woman behind him had blocked him while she tried to back her minivan into a Honda-sized parking space along one side. “What the fuck are you doing?” the guy yelled. “Who the fuck taught you how to fucking drive? Jesus fuck!” And so on. (Technically, the sentence should have been “Who taught you how to fucking PARK,” but I’m not an English teacher anymore, and I let the lexemes fall like unswept shrapnel.)

Another example: Everyone has warned me, “Things are really expensive in New York City!” And yet on Tuesday night, I went to my favorite Chelsea-area bar—a country-western dive in the saucy-hot-female-bartenders-dancing-on-the-bar genre called Red Rock West. You know how much I paid for a rum and coke? $4.50. That’s what I pay in Tallahassee. On the way home, I stopped in a 24-hour Quick-E-Mart-type corner store and saw that they were selling Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies for $2.99 a package. You know what they cost in Tallahassee? $2.99.

Admittedly, the high end is really insanely high, particularly at trendy clubs that have $20 entry fees and such. But if you choose your restaurants, the sticker shock is nonexistent. For example, I stopped in at one of my favorite Chelsea restaurants—a tidy little hole in the wall called F & B, which sells gourmet fries and hotdogs. (“Frittes and belges,” as they’re apparently known in Europe.) So where I normally pay $2.50 for a plain hotdog with ketchup from the Florida State on-campus hotdog vendors, I was charged $3.25 for these gourmet hotdogs.

Sound outrageous? Not to me—particularly when you consider that they sell salmon hot dogs, pork and cheese andouille sausage, and smoked chicken dogs. And instead of ketchup, you have your choice of garlic aioli, horseradish, remoulade, sweet Thai chili, or roast red pepper. And for no extra charge, you can forgo the home-made standard french fries in favor of fried green beans or sweet potato fries, in addition to the usual onion rings or chicken fingers. When I was there I had a Swedish meatball roll—a hotdog bun with a bunch of small meatballs served with traditional sauce and lingonberry—and a “top dog”, which is a hotdog topped with spicy mustard, sauerkraut and bacon. Bacon! I practically slapped my forehead. Of course! Hotdogs are tref anyway, so what’s a little bacon going to hurt? It’s worth 75 extra cents just to celebrate simple ingenuity like that.

Apartment-Hunting in Manhattan and Environs

How much does a sex change cost? Because if I could deal with the associated inconveniences, I think I could make back the cost of the procedure in about two years of reduced-rate living in Manhattan. Requests for female roommates are about three times as numerous as males on craigslist (and that’s a generous estimate, since no one actually specifies “male only” or “male preferred”), and females seem to get most of the lower-cost deals. (Admittedly, they get paid less, so perhaps this is only fair.) Having said that, however, I found that on craigslist alone, it was common to see between fifty and a hundred listings every day, of which ten percent seemed to be male-friendly and within my price range (which I guessed to be around $800 or less). Everyone told me, “It’s so hard to find a place in New York City!” Everyone is wrong—at least in February. By the end of my first hour’s scanning, I had thirteen prospects, all posted within the last two days.

But then I realized I’d made an error. I flew up on Friday, had a long sleepless travel experience (see above) and when I woke up late on Saturday I simply wasn’t in the mood for apartment hunting. Sunday was going to be busy—a brunch and an off-Broadway show—so I realized that my best bet might well be to do my shopping on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before I had to leave at 4. Two and a half days would be enough time to find an apartment, right? So on Saturday I made my calls, and by Monday . . . only four people had called me back. Oops!
More people might contact me, but on this, my apartment-hunting trip, I had a total of four apartments to look at: two on Monday, two on Tuesday. Maybe someone would call by Wednesday and I could squeeze them in, but I crossed my fingers really really hard and hoped I wouldn’t have to settle for anything too unpleasant.

They tell you to never fall in love with the first place, but I couldn’t help it. It was $750 a month, split four ways with a still-unknown roommate and two medical students-slash-lovers. (Actually, I think he’s a medical student and she’s a working nurse; but he was from Georgia—the country—and his Russian accent was pretty thick.) The place was clean, newly renovated, had a heater that worked just fine, and—get this—was exactly the same size as the room I essentially live out of now. So right away I knew everything would fit. It turns out to be so close to the 181st St. subway stop that I could practically roll there in my sleep. But best of all, the one roommate I met—the Georgian medical student—LIKED MY JOKES. Nothing helps out a roommate situation like a shared sense of irony!

I handed him a filled-out check and said, “I have one more place to get to today, so I can’t promise yet. But I really like it. I’ll call when you can cash this.”

“Okay,” he said. “But I can’t promise the room will still be here when you get back.”

True enough—all the moving-to-New-York guides say the same thing—but they didn’t have another roommate yet. What were the odds this place would obtain TWO acceptable roommates pushier than me in the hour-and-a-half or so it would take me to get to Queens and back? I decided to gamble.

And so I took the Subway to Queens, and it’s a surprisingly long trip. 181st Street doesn’t sound particularly distant to me, since most of my family in Tucson lives at 5-digit addresses, but the streets in Manhattan are pretty dang long, and then I got turned around in the Subway station (The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, dammit!) and by the time I found my way, it was just about 4 pm.

This second apartment was letting for a much more calm-inducing $630 a month, but the first thing I noticed when I emerged from the train was that all the houses in the area had bars on their windows. On the plus side, there was a bodega on the corner (for some reason my dream of city living includes a vegetable stand within a block), but still. My nervousness wasn’t helped when I heard two slim young black girls, maybe ten years old, talking about their day at school. (“So he was all, ‘why don’t you hit me then?’ and I punch him in the stomach real hard, you know, and he was like, crying and calling the teacher and I was all, “Shut up!” and I got on top of him and hit him again . . .”) Apparently, I am less violent than a ten-year-old girl.

I called the manager who was renting the room, and he emerged from a junk-filled back yard carrying a humidifier. He was a short, bald German guy who actually looked like I imagine I’ll look in ten years: a kind of dumpy, weatherbeaten mannikin. He didn’t laugh.

God knows I tried to be open-minded, but I’d made up my mind before I even climbed the stairs: Despite the bars everywhere, the front door had one of its street-level panes kicked in. What’s worse, when you entered the lobby where the mailboxes were, the door beyond had a very clear bullet hole in it—right at eye level. “If this is what $630 gets you in New York,” I thought, “$750 is starting to look like a real bargain.” In addition to avoiding prison, another of my life goals is to reach my 70th birthday without suffering any eye-level punctures.

“So what do you think?” he said, after showing me the room—which, by the way, was small, skinny, and had been painted a surprisingly depressing shade of blue.

“I’ll get back to you,” I said. Then I called back the first guy and told him about the bullet hole. We both laughed.

Panic at 30,000 Feet

I just got back from an initial trip to New York, since I figured I should fly in and get an apartment so I'd know how much room I had to pack for. There are a few stories from the naked city I thought I'd share, and we start with a tale of panic.

I had just gotten to the airport in Jacksonville when I felt an overwhelming terror overtake me. In many ways it felt like the standard panic attack that ex-fundies like myself are often heir to: weakness in the legs, tense chest and throat, ultrathumpety heart. But conventional panic attacks rarely last more than a few minutes. This was a longer, more sustained anxiety, like the kind I had the one time I smoked pot and rattled myself to pieces for the next four hours. I found myself sitting outside the gate at Jacksonville International feeling utterly exhausted, yet utterly restless. I couldn’t sleep, felt no urge to eat, and couldn’t seem to focus on anything I tried to read. All I could do was worry, and the worrying was of the worst possible type: the helpless sort of “what if a comet hits the earth and we all die” sort of worry you can do nothing about. Clearly my chief fear was of the future. What the hell did I think I was doing, actually planning an honest-to-God move to New York City? Once I started on this trip, there was no going back. I started wondering how much of most people’s fear of the future isn’t really a form of commitment-phobia.

At any rate, I soldiered on, but I was miserable the entire time. After a three-hour car trip, I shambled through the gate, waited for my flight, and couldn’t read, eat, or concentrate. They called at the gate, I made my way through in a kind of dreadful dream, and sat in the chair and didn’t move and couldn’t concentrate. We took off, and I got even more nervous, then once we leveled off I quieted to earlier level of nervousness. It was like that for eight hours. I don’t know if it was the lack of food, the exhaustion from the road, or some combination of the two coupled with my natural hypochondriac tendencies, but I felt this terror as an actual physical ache throughout my entire body, and it foiled my every attempt to close my eyes and get comfortable.

And then a funny thing happened. The moment I landed in Manhattan, I felt excited instead. When I got off the Q33 bus and onto the subway that would take me to my friend Ryan’s place, I felt my body practically throbbing with energy. I finally made it to Ryan’s apartment in Chelsea and, after we hugged and I threw down my luggage, I said, “What do you want to do?” I should have been dead on my feet, but I couldn’t sit still. And then, as we walked to a nearby eatery, I caught myself looking around me at the thoroughly normal people on all sides and I thought, “I bet I’m smarter and more talented than that guy, and he’s obviously got a job here.” I stood in line for a drink and thought, “That woman in front of me is pretty, but I bet she doesn’t have a Ph.D. or a publication record that includes the Atlantic Monthly.” And there were actual typos in the menu, and at that point I relaxed and said, “Obviously, this town still has room for one more competent writer.”

Then I came back to Ryan’s place and slept for about fourteen hours. But I was no longer scared. I feel silly claiming to have discovered something so banal, but just as Hallmark taught me the painful truth that money can’t buy happiness, so this apartment-shopping trip had already taught me another valuable lesson: the fear is always worse than the reality. To put it another way, if you find you are a nervous, high-strung person, the good news is: you’re wrong most of the time. Practically everything I discovered about New York over the next few days assuaged all my fears and made this overstuffed island feel downright conquerable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dave Madness and Starvation Watch, Day 1

Since I'm moving to New York City, there were a gazillion titles I could have used for this inaugural post, but they all seemed so trite. "If I Can Make It There," "Start Spreading the News . . .", "I'm in a New York State of Mind . . ." I also toyed with "Ad Astra Per Aspera", which is the motto of Kansas ("to the stars through difficulty"). This seemed to perfectly capture my real feelings about the city. I love it, and it scares me to death, and the Dickerson-trained risk-averse part of my nature wishes I could do anything else. But I'm a humor writer, and New York seems the only place I could possibly thrive. More later on this. For the moment, this is just what I had to write in order to set up the account.