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!

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Article Nobody Wanted

I visited the offices of Newsweek/Slate a few days back and asked some unnamed person-in-charge---using the jealously-guarded phone in the lobby---if they were still looking at my "Last Comic Standing" article from three weeks ago. Whoever she was replied, "If we haven't gotten back to you in three weeks, we're probably not going to use it." Oh, I thought. Is THAT how the system works? I suppose in a way it's nice of them to cut down on the world's negativity by refusing to reject anything except in the nicest, most passive-aggressive way. But Christ---if I'd known that was their system (and I've gotten similar stony silence from New York Magazine and the New York Times) I'd have wasted a helluva lot less time waiting around and used it more productively---say, by taking a course in Tapping Your Psychic Potential.

Anyway, since the article seems bafflingly dead and unmourned by the three most likely outlets for its publication, I figure I may as well publish it here now. I'll have other things to write in the future. In the meantime, it's a fun story, and those of you who are new to it may find it of interest:


A writer reports on the comedy show tryouts

By the time I make it to Caroline’s at 50th and Broadway where NBC is holding the auditions for the fourth season of Last Comic Standing (a competitive-comedy reality show), the line of hopefuls forms a huddled and stamping mass, four humans wide, that stretches around the corner—and then, once you make it there, halfway down the next corner as well. It’s a more diverse crowd than I expected. Although the sidewalk is dominated by the twenty-something male demographic that constitute standup’s unfortunate spine, there are older people as well, and an encouraging number of women. All told, there must be five hundred people here, and I am one of the last to arrive—becoming, temporarily, the last comic standing in line.

Admittedly, I arrived at 10:30, later than I expected. Before I could take the subway from Washington Heights, I had to wander through my neighborhood for over half an hour, looking for a free parking space that wouldn’t be street-cleaned at noon. I found one after making an ever-widening gyre, and then had to walk all the way back to my apartment, change into my usual cowboy outfit, and wait for the next subway train. I actually need the outfit because a few of my jokes depend on it. (E.g., “These boots are so cool I no longer require self-esteem.”) But in all honesty, I don’t really know what I’m going to do. The website said to bring three minutes of TV-friendly material, and that only eliminates two of my bits—one about necrophilia and one about having sex with an ostrich. (An inflatable ostrich. As the bit points out, I’m not a freak.) Three minutes constitutes between nine and fifteen jokes, and I assume I’ll have enough time waiting on line to work out the details.

Seconds later, a young black man in his late twenties or early thirties joins the line right behind me. “Oh, man!” he moans. “Is this the end of the line? I swear, I’m like the last comic standing right here.” His name is Corey Michaels, and unlike many comics I’ve met, where you can never tell if they’re telling you an actual story or trying out material, Corey is honest and easy to chat with. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he tells me. “My wife made me come. I haven’t done stand-up in six years.” He got into it almost by accident, performing first in El Paso on a dare and then spreading to other areas, mostly throughout the West, amazed, he says, that people kept paying him. “I had a great time,” he said. “I hear horror stories about bad crowds or people heckling you or whatever, but I never bombed and I never had a bad night. I did seventy shows and retired undefeated.”

I nod as if I get it, but there I have to differ. I haven’t done stand-up in ten years myself and retired quite defeated indeed. After performing open mikes in my home town of Tucson for four years, developing material five minutes at a time and having middling success, I moved to Kansas City to write humor cards for Hallmark, and was so appalled at the homophobia and sexism of the city’s most popular comics, I retired from that sideline in protest. I’d spent the last six years in Tallahassee, Florida, where there is no comedy scene at all. But old tendencies have grip, and although I’d only been in New York a week, I’d found myself, just last night, observing an open mike night in the Village and thinking, over and over again, “I could do better than that guy . . .just get me up there, dammit!” That’s where I learned that Last Comic Standing was holding auditions today. One of the running jokes was that so-and-so wasn’t here tonight because they were camping outside Caroline’s in twenty-degree weather, waiting to go on. We all laughed at these crazy dreamers. Now, considering the turn-out, they seem flinty-eyed and pragmatic. And I bet, if nothing else, they got on TV. How could any producer resist televising at least one sweep of the camping hopefuls on the sidewalk outside? I hope some of them remembered their props.

Corey and I are joined by Linda Meris (sometimes Linda Skwer) and Leela “Momma Z” Zapetti, two women I placed in their forties. “Oh, my god!” says Linda, in perfectly accented Manhattanese. “Is this the end of the line? We’re like, literally, the last comics standing out here!” Momma Z is a working comic who’s traveled all over. She and Linda commiserate for a while about the difficulty of being women in the biz. “The shit they try to pull, I bet they’d never try it on a man,” says Linda, and Momma backs her up with stories of two-hundred-dollar purses that turn into hundreds, club owners who try to get extra work out of their talent by making them unpaid hosts, et cetera. Standard bottom-feeder showbiz sleaze, and they’ve been slogging away at it for years. Linda also sings and acts, and she had an audition yesterday and has another tomorrow, and it sounds like the proudest moment for her, after all this work, has been a role in a highly-regarded off-off-Broadway production of Annie. Really? I think. I look at this line—a thousand people clawing for a chance to make it to the middle. For a second I feel like I’m a minor character in Broadway Danny Rose.

Linda begins complaining about the mistreatment we’re all receiving. “If they really cared about us, they’d have the auditions in spring, you know, and they’d have called us up and assigned numbers. We’d be waiting inside right now, instead of out here in the cold.” She speaks truth. It’s about forty degrees out, but it drops like a death sentence every time a wind slices past, which is often. And a grumpy old guy nearby grouses about how, on the website, they promised that if you sent in a video of your work, or some kind of proof that you were a real working comic with actual representation, they’d give you a personal phone call and more time to perform. Instead, he’s gotten bupkes.

And yet, despite agreeing with all this in principle, I actually expected no less. Unlike singing, which everyone thinks they can do (and which has inspired the karaoke bar and this show’s obvious antecedent, American Idol), comedy is a niche occupation. And perhaps because so few people actually do it seriously, no one really respects the challenges involved. When I was writing at Hallmark, the only sure way to advance was to stop writing humor and move to the serious writing staff. When I wrote my first novel, it was rejected by one agent who said, “The problem is that it’s funny, and that makes it a tough sell. You’re almost better off making people cry than you are trying to make them laugh.” Comedians go last on the late-night talk shows . . . until they become actors, and then they move to the front of the bill. So inviting us to stand outside in the weather like so many unloved dogs just feels like par for the profession. We get no respect. I’m just glad this didn’t happen two weeks ago, when there was actual snow in the air, and two feet of accumulation in Central Park.

Linda seems to know everyone, and keeps craning to catch the eyes of contacts further up the line. She turns out to be extremely useful in keeping us abreast of rumors. “They say that they’ve got so many people already that they’re only letting people do a minute of material instead of three,” says one guy, announcing it back toward us stragglers. (“Well, I’m glad for that,” says Michael Ramin, a tall handsome comedian who says he can do a hundred different voices and sounds. “At least that means we get in.”) Another says that they’re going to send us all chips and drinks to thank us for waiting. (No one believes it, and it’s not true.) A pissed-looking thirtyish man in a very nice suit passes us, hands balled tightly in his pockets, and calls out, “You’d better all go home. They’re all full up, and they can’t possibly get to you.” Then he heads for the subway. This causes a moment of somber doubt, but Linda adds wisdom. “They can’t be full up,” she says. “I’ve been up there. The line hasn’t moved yet. They obviously haven’t even started auditioning.”

“He was probably just trying to psych us out,” says Corey, who, in a line full of hopefuls, is the most optimistic guy I meet all day.

A tedious hour passes, and I’ve just started to wish I’d chosen a different set of boots, when an excited muttering aerates the crowd: here comes a camera crew, along with someone who looks like a host! (“I should know who that guy is,” says Corey. “He’s on that one show about his wife and kids.” I suggest “My Wife and Kids,” but that’s not it. Turns out it’s “Yes, Dear”’s Anthony Clark.) This is Plan B. If we can’t win the contest, maybe we can get exposure on TV anyway! Sure enough, the camera crew wends to the very back—maybe thirty more people have joined by now—and the host interviews some old guy that no one seems to recognize. The intra-comic sniping starts immediately. “Why’d they pick that guy?” mutters a woman near me. “Just because he’s old?” “I’ve been to every club in the Village and I’ve never seen him,” adds a young man. “Maybe he performs at Rascal’s,” sniffs a third comic. Rascal’s is in Jersey, and seems to be unspeakably downmarket. I feel very new here.

What horrifies me, however, is the few lines I can hear. “So,” says Host Clark. “Which member of your family would you kill to be on Last Comic Standing?” A question which clearly has no funny answer, since the last mother-in-law joke died in a museum in 1959. (“My uncle” would arguably be the best of the bad options, since it has that funny k sound.)

“Oh, goodness! Nobody,” says the old man, obviously disturbed by the question. “For me, comedy is about sharing laughter and . . .” I don’t hear the rest because I actually put my fingers in my ears and hum, waiting for the pain to stop. But it doesn’t stop. The old man apparently rates a second wacky question, viz. “And if you were a vegetable, what kind of food would you eat?”

I don’t even bother to listen. My professional pride is deeply insulted by this. Why, for the love of god, would you try to generate humor with such awful, joy-killing set-ups? “Oh, wow!” says Momma Z beside me. “I wish he’d asked me that question. I know exactly what I’d have said. Kumquat!” See, there’s your problem right there. This is supposed to be comedy, not Scrabble. In an ideal world, I imagine myself dressing down Anthony Clark and saying, “That’s a stupid question and I bridle at this entire depressing exercise in artificial wackiness.” But of course, I know that in the heat of action and the pressure of nascent fame I would have just knuckled under and said, “Um . . .my wife, Mrs. Carrot.”

As it turns out, I’m the next target. I assume it’s because I’m wearing a cowboy suit, which is sort of what I was counting on. (Note to the grousers behind me: if you want to get on TV, stay on the outside of the line where the cameras are!) We have to wait a moment while they switch camera batteries, and Mr. Clark stands near me, mike poised, and looks down at a scrawl-covered sheet of paper with questions on it. From my angle, I can see his thumb partially obscuring a line that reads “If u were veg., what kind . . .” Please, god, not a repeat of that one. Because we have a few moments of downtime, I’m tempted to say, “Dude, if you tell me what question you’re going to ask, I’ll have a few extra seconds to think of something funny. That’ll be good for you, good for me—and since this is televised, it’s basically good for the whole country, plus parts of Canada.” But of course, that would be cheating. I keep forgetting this is a competition.

We’re on. “So,” says Anthony Clark, “Do you think being on Last Comic Standing will help fulfill your dreams?” Or something like that. I barely remember the question, except that it led to me rambling about how, if I make it here, I intend to go on to become a pop icon, survive, dance with one or more stars, and eventually do commentary on ESPN3. “It sounds like you’ve got a lot of big plans,” says the host. “Yeah,” I say. “Lots of irons in the fire.” I can’t stop talking in cliches. I suck. This is why I prefer writing.

“So,” says Anthony Clark, “are you a fan of the insurgency?”

The hell? “No,” I manage. “But I do hate America.” The camera crew laughs. Score! My on-camera reputation is saved! But Clark just stands there, and the mike doesn’t waver. Apparently the bit isn’t over. I want to say, “That was the punchline. It was funny. We can stop now.” But, with the pressure on, I keep trying. Insurgency. Young men dying in a war we shouldn’t be fighting. No body armor. What’s funny about IEDs? Think, man! I fumfer and mumble and blank out, and finally say, “You know, I’ve got nothing. You’ll just have to edit this part out. Frankly, I’m not sure I even understand the premise.”

Undaunted, he asks me, “What’s your favorite color—yellow or coconut?” That wacky k sound again! Won’t someone please kill it?

“Actually, I’m colorblind,” I say. “And thanks so much for reminding me, you heartless bastard.” More laughs. Yes! Dave sticks the dismount! And the host, sensing closure, moves on. To give him his due, it occurs to me later that he gave me four whole questions because he evidently sensed I had potential to give him workable material. And I like to think he was right. But you know what would make his job even easier? Helpful fucking questions. If this fly-by was supposed to set the tone, I smell a pretty depressing season of comedy.

Which, come to think of it, may be another reason comedy gets no respect. Unlike singing or dancing or the other arts, comedy, by its very structure, sets up expectations and promises to fulfill them in a surprising way: a perfectly elegant marriage of premise and punchline. Which means that comedy, more than any other art form, is vulnerable to the anger of disappointment. You can listen to a mediocre song and it’s okay. You can watch a clumsy dancer and not feel ripped off. But a bad joke is actively irritating, and creating a show full of bad jokes is like televising an hour-long headache. Everyone wants to laugh, but after you’ve been burned once or twice, you start to let the invitations pile up on the table. Small wonder that Last Comic Standing has suffered in the ratings. It’s competing with a bunch of other shows that might be called Actually Good Comics Consistently Performing to Spec.

Speaking of which, although comics can be a snarky bunch, everyone here loves Jon Stewart and thinks he did a great job at the Oscars. I know this because after the camera crew leaves to go further up the line, nothing else happens. We wiggle forward in a few glacial steps, but mostly we have lots of time to stand around and talk. One of the people has actually met Jon Stewart and says, “No one has any idea how crazy he is in real life.” Everyone seems to hate Robin Williams. We pass a head shot of John Witherspoon (the dad from “Friday”) and in a moment borrowed from every music discussion I’ve ever had, the onlookers agree that “he used to be good, but lately he’s starting to suck.”

And then, shockingly, the line moves forward in a large all-at-once clump. (I check my watch; it’s just shy of noon.) We find ourselves literally turning a corner, and here there is sunlight and warmth, and the whole thing seems like a metaphor for our own hopes of recognition and fame, now a little closer and in reach. Sure, we stop dead again, but something is at least happening! People begin to form chatty clusters of four or five, comparing histories and anecdotes. Everyone seems to have been doing comedy for several years, performing at big-name places like Caroline’s and The Laugh Factory—places that seem hopelessly out of reach to me.
We stand and wait and inch forward and stand and wait some more. If this were a comedy, right here would be a good cue for a tumbleweed. Time passes—and the sun, meanwhile, hides behind a cloud like it knows what’s coming—and eventually, just as we’re about to turn the second corner and actually see the Caroline’s entrance, a police officer comes toward us with both his hands raised, followed by two quiet men in official-looking corporate outfits, and I know we’re sunk.

“I’m going to tell you people what I told those people behind you,” says the cop, who is so direct from Central Casting he could have been played by Danny Aiello. The resemblance is so striking I can’t look away. “This is what’s happened. The show is full up and they’re not taking any more. So you might as well all go home.” The time is 2:30.

And what’s amazing is that about a fifth of the people stay. Even when this meme has spread, no one seems willing to actually give up. Perhaps it was the opportunity cost—I’ve been standing here for hours, what more can I lose—but I think it was also the reaction to rejection that characterizes any comic who survives. For a comedian, rejection is always an option. (This is especially true for joke writers; even after I’d gotten the job, about eighty percent of what I wrote for Hallmark was killed within twenty-four hours.) But comedians—more so than even actors and singers—have to perform in hostile environments, with crowds that not only ignore them but sometimes actively take up hostile arms. And yet this next joke might win them over, and the whole environment could change in twenty seconds. So a comedian is sustained by a form of hope that’s the same sort of random reinforcement that keeps lab rats obsessively pushing the lever. Once there was cheese, and there may be more any second now; if I stopped pushing the lever once too soon, I’d have only myself to blame. And I need it so much.

Me, I leave the ship. But if you watch the first episode of Last Comic Standing, you may see me: I’m the guy in the boots and the cowboy hat and long black duster. And though they may play it deceptively on TV, know that I never got a chance to actually compete, because I apparently got there too late after re-parking my car. Boy, I tell ya—parking in New York City! Someone ought to write a joke about it.

That Carillon You're Hearing Is The Sound of A Jillion Angels Getting Wings Simultaneously

Thanks to everyone who's put in their two cents, either on the blog or in personal emails. I feel like the richest man in Potterville. Of course, I don't yet have a job, and Car Cash offered me, and I quote, "one hundred, maybe five hundred tops" for my car. But I do have a guy who's good for a rent-covering offer in a week or two, so I'll be okay for rent before anything goes too horribly wrong.

In the meantime, I am now heading out with a dozen phone and fax numbers in my wallet, and a dozen resumes under my arm, from which I have judiciously scrubbed my nascent Ph.D. (and my last vestiges of ego.) I was tempted to add a line saying, "I don't know Excel, but I do 'know' Excel, if you get my drift." But that's the problem with resumes---you're not allowed to be funny. I always come across better in person than I do on paper. More on this later.

By the way, it's been pointed out that my pictures aren't showing up in Internet Explorer or Firefox. I use Netscape, and all I did was call the photo up on my computer, select, cut and paste. If someone out there knows another way to do this, let me know. They're really nice pictures.

Laughter, the Best Epidural

In the comments on my "Help Dave Live!" post, I got one from my friend Jim in Kansas City who makes a few hilarious notes and then says, "Sorry I was no help." I figured I had to promote this reply from a comment to a front-page post.

Actually, Jim, you're a tremendous help, and here's why. My brother and his wife had a baby yesterday in an emergency C-section (everyone's fine now) and the best staff member during the process was a doctor who kept my sis-in-law calm simply by telling wry jokes. ("Here comes the worst part of the epidural," he announced soberly. "I'm about to dab you with a sponge.") Having a guy there who didn't panic and kept everyone's spirits up allowed my brother---for whom this is all brand new---to feel less overwhelmed and more emotionally in control of the whole bewildering experience. And that's what reading your post has done for me. So thanks!

P.S. Welcome to the world, Benjamin! And enjoy your life of leisure, you cute little parasite! I recommend you learn Excel.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Look at the Pretty Birdie!

To distract myself from the depressing helplessness of the last post, I've decided to make good on my earlier promise and post a second picture, so that way I can truthfully assert that my site contains "pictures." This photo, taken at the Fountain of Youth state park in St. Augustine, Florida, is probably the highest-quality photo my old camera-phone ever took.

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...And what the hell. Here's a picture of one of those giant pots called "tinajones." Know anybody named Tina Jones? That's another peacock in the tree, but compared to the albino one above, this peacock is for shit.

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By the way, that's not my thumb in either photo. The leather casing for my phone had a tendency to pucker right near the lens.

Help Dave Live!

Bad news first: I still have no job, and I'm down to $80 in my bank account. Rent ($750) is technically due tomorrow, though I'm told I probably have about ten days leeway.

Potentially good news: I'm currently listed with three unemployment agencies, none of whom have called, but I remain hopeful. I also registered with the Lynne Palmer Agency, which allegedly specializes in finding jobs in publishing and editing, and I hope to hear from them for an initial interview by the week's end. My current best hope for an agent (Alex Glass, Trident) is supposed to be contacting me this week with a thumbs up or down on my book. (Still no word from the five others I e-mailed.) And just yesterday, the Vice President of Putnam (a division of Penguin) offered to help me out and asked for my resume. (Thanks, Mark Winegardner! You're the coolest!) Haven't heard anything from him yet, but of course that was yesterday. And there's a well-connected crossword editor, Leslie Billig, who has forwarded me at least one puzzle job. (Alas, it's a crossword CONSTRUCTION job, which I no longer have the software to do.) I'm sending four readings-and-tapes to This American Life today, and maybe that'll help too. And in a long shot, I also got the fax number for The Daily Show, although the secretary said, "I can't promise they even want anything or will look at what you send. Use it at your risk."

So I'm optimistic that SOMETHING will come together for me in the next month. For now, all I have to do is pay my $750 rent. Which means, for the moment, that my "job," as it were, is to sell my car.

Here's where you all come in. I need ideas. The car I'm selling is a '91 Acura Integra sports coupe with 207,000 miles, but everything works (except the driver's side door handle) and it runs beautifully and---since it's lived its entire life in the desert---has no rust on its underbody. Plus, it's an Acura, so it probably has another 50,000 miles of life in it. Its Blue Book value is technically $1375, and so I posted on Craigslist asking $1100, and the best offer I got was for $600. It's a standing offer, and it's nice to have a fallback, but it sure would be helpful to do better. (I would have sold it long ago, but I had to send away to get a duplicate title, and wasn't THAT a pain!)

I've just taped signs on the car itself: "FOR SALE--- '91 Acura Integra---$1000---Call Dave at . . . " But aside from that, I'm not sure what to do. An ad in the Times would eat further into the small stash I still have, and I'm apparently unable to become a seller on eBay for another two weeks, which is when my official bank card allegedly comes in. (My current card---and my current checks---are temporaries, and they don't pass eBay-registration muster.)

Send me your ideas! I'm still optimistic, but my happy smile is getting a little strained at the edges.


P.S. This would be so much easier if I had the brainpower to be a waiter or bartender. But my memory has always been so bad I've always been afraid I'd screw up everyone's order, and anyway it's a little hard to start now, since I'd be competing in New York with every actor who DOES have years of serving experience. Or am I just talking myself out of a good gig? Office work seems like the best short-term solution. So why aren't the damn agencies calling? Sigh . . .
P.P.S. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the moment I sell my book, I can probably expect about a $20,000 advance. (That's the industry average.) And if I sell any of my articles to a major magazine, that's $1,000 easy. It's the short term that's killing me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Best Thing About Biloxi

I was taking a picture of my car today in the hopes that a picture would expedite my selling it (and, hence, my surviving for another month of job searching). While doing so, I ran across a few photos from my trip across country that I've never shown anybody. So, for my inaugural photo, why not a picture of a friendly waitress from a casino in Biloxi? Biloxi's gone now, but I hope she's okay.

I'll have more when I figure out how to do this more efficiently.

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Wales, Y'all! Represent!

There's a show on NPR called "The Thistle and Shamrock" that plays---as you may have guessed---Scottish and Irish music for one interminable skirling hour. And every time I heard the title of the show, I was always a little miffed at its exclusivity. "Just the thistle and the shamrock?" I wanted to ask. "What about the leek? Are you saying Welsh music is for shit?" (I mean, maybe it is, but why decide ahead of time when you title your show?)

Well, wonder no more! I was thrilled today to discover that Welsh singer Tom Jones has just been knighted! Take THAT, Sir Paul McCartney! Step back, Sir Ian McKellen! Now the Welsh have a knight, too! Oh, sure, he's a little embarrassing---it's a bit like giving an Academy Award to William Shatner. But maybe there's a reason for it. Unfortunately, the article I read was a little light on details---apparently you just show up, get knighted, and leave in time for your midday crumpet or whatever. Which is a shame, because I'd love to think that, after the ceremony, some official regaliaed flunky leaned over and murmured, "And did you bring your band with you? Because the Queen Mum would love to hear 'Sex Bomb.'"

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Two Jokes

First, there's a woman named Raquel who hosts the Open Mike Comedy night at the Village Lantern, and she's got a great joke that she apparently refuses to tell except under duress. In the interest of popularizing her vision, I hereby share it:

"We should all get together and buy a chicken farm. I'd want to call it Tuna of the Land."

And now mine---it's not even a joke, I guess, but just a really mean thing to say. But it felt good to write it down, and I hereby share it with you. It might go into my slowly-developing act:

“Did you know they use the evolution of microorganisms to find oil? So it’s amazing to me that George Bush, an oil man, would say with a straight face that ‘the jury is still out’ on evolution. I’ve never seen an administration so proud of its own ignorance. If I ever meet George Bush, I won’t say a thing to him. I’m just going to hold out my keys and jingle them and see if he tries to stick them in his mouth.”

Why The Good Guys Can't Win: A Sort of Sermon

Yesterday I read on DailyKos that Media Matters for America is teaming up with the United Church of Christ and a website called Street Prophets to, in the website founder’s words, “combat the media filter that . . . puts hateful gits like James Dobson or Jerry Falwell on television as representatives of Christianity as a whole. We're going to challenge that stranglehold, and hopefully, make some room for some, you know, sane Christians to speak for the faith?” By sane they mean liberal.

Then as luck would have it, today when I was moving my car to avoid the street cleaners, I chanced to hear an NPR interview with Karen Armstrong, the pan-religionist ex-nun who has written bestselling books on Buddha, Muhammad (her spelling), The History of God (relations between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and a bunch of others. Her new book is about looking at how religious traditions in what is apparently called the “Axial Age” all developed prophets that said, in essence, “Forget religion and embrace compassion”—people like Buddha, Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, Confucius, Mohammed, Lao-Tse (the Taoism guy), and Socrates. (And they didn’t get to it, but I assume when she’s talking about Buddhism, she’s talking about the later development of Mahayana Buddhism, “the wide path” that accepts many styles, not Hinayana, which I seem to recall is more obsessed with maintaining tradition.) Karen’s ultimate argument should surprise no one: we need to get back to these original voices of compassion and unity, and avoid all the traditions that divide us!

Having these two idealists echoing in my head has inspired me to make an assertion that I wish more people realized: It’s never gonna happen. Bad religion drives out good religion, and the forces of human history always tend toward suckiness.

Let me start by taking on Street Prophets. It’s all very well to want to combat the ugliness of evangelical Christianity in the media. Any good person would desire this. But the raw fact is that you can’t really oppose evangelical Christianity with open-mindedness. Evangelical Christians think they are the only REAL Christians. To “share” Christianity with other traditions would destroy their very reason for being—they are nothing if not the best, most truthful, most committed form of real Christianity. The only way they’ll ever share the name “Christian” with another group is if they profit from it—by saying, for example, “Christians everywhere are upset about stem cell research” and hoping that the casual listener will assume this includes mainstream Episcopalians, liberal Catholics, and every good person of a Christian-shaped faith—when really it’s only a concern for evangelical Christians and their literalist sectarian colleagues: the Mormons, The Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the like.

It’s like being in a relationship and having an argument about, say, how to raise the kids. In any such argument, the person who cares more always wins. (“Fine–if it matters so much to you, we’ll just raise them Jewish.”) And no one cares more about defining Christianity than evangelical Christians. Their god may seem nice in public, but in the back of every evangelical’s mind they know that God punishes disobeying nations and sends all unbelievers to a very literal hell—and only evangelicals really “get” this, and if they don’t spread the word the entire world is lost. What’s more, they are presented on all sides with actual scientific facts—about evolution, about physics, about the history of the Bible—that call all their dearest claims into question, and their only defense is to get out the megaphones and try to shout the world down, insisting repeatedly that what they believe really is true, and who cares about experts and scientists? By contrast, the God of liberal Christianity isn’t vengeful, doesn’t damn people, and accepts pretty much all of modern knowledge, and therefore provides neither sufficient fear nor cultural resentment to energize their adherents. There are good fighters in this war, as I will explain later, but they won’t come from any liberal church that seeks reasoned dialogue. Reasoned dialogue doesn’t make good TV.

Which is why I’ve decided I don’t like Karen Armstrong. I’ve mentioned in the past that I really like nice, life-affirming people from all religions who embrace compassion and ignore everything hateful in their traditions as well as others. (Because every tradition contains something hateful, with the possible exception of Taoism.) But there’s a limit, and Karen Armstrong seems to have slipped into dangerous foolishness when she suggests that we all need to return to compassion and that “real” Christianity isn’t what evangelicals practice, and “real” Islam is a religion of peace, etc. It’s as disingenous as evangelical Christians are when they say “real” Christians don’t ordain women. (“But what about the Presbyterian Church?” “They’re not real Christians.”) It’s often called the No True Scotsman fallacy, and open-hearted religious types use it all the time to talk about the joys of “real” religion instead of diagnosing the religion that real people actually practice.

Islam is a particularly painful case in point. There are so many Muslims in the world, of course most of them are entirely peaceful, for the simple reason that most people prefer to live peaceful lives. Most are probably culturally Muslim the way other people are culturally Buddhist or culturally Christian: people who believe you should live your life and try to do what’s right, but ignore anything in the religion that seems outright crazy. But the fundamentalist wing in Islam is armed and militant. Is there anyone from the moderate or liberal wing in Islam who’s willing to stand up with a machine gun and shout, “ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF TOLERANCE, DAMMIT!” Of course not. And so the moderates lose. The worse your conservatives are, the more powerless the liberals become. And I hate to say it, but the only way forward is for Muslims to abandon their myths the way Jews abandoned theirs. No, the Koran was not dictated by God, and textual criticism proves it. There were no Seven Sleepers at Ephesus who survived in a cave for a hundred and eighty years. No, slavery is not a good thing. (Tell that to St. Paul, too, you Christians!) And I honestly don’t see any way out of our current crisis that doesn’t start with even more cultural humiliation for Muslims—sort of like the black eye fundamentalists got at the Scopes Monkey Trial—but I think it would be better if this humiliation could be ascribed to impersonal science rather than Western imperialism. But that’s a whole nother essay.

But before I dig myself into too deep a hole, I should add that I’m not just picking on Islam here. It’s the West in general. I think it’s scientifically provable that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three most dangerous religions anyone ever wrote down. If, as Malise Ruthven asserts, fundamentalism is “an attempt to read myth into history” (i.e. to take scripture literally), then Judaism gives the fundamentalist reader every reason to assume that God wants the Jews to possess Israel no matter how many women and children have to die; Christianity suggests quite naturally that Jews are going to hell and want to be blamed for Jesus’ death, and that there’s literally no value in doing anything but converting other people; and Islam demands the establishment of a form of government that violates all kinds of basic civil rights. Other religions don’t have this particular problem—I can’t even imagine what a fundamentalist Taoist would look like—but to be fair to evil Hindus and Buddhists, there isn’t a religion in the world whose conservatives treat women with equality.

I guess this is what annoys me most about the Karen Armstrongs of the world. The pious cant from the lazier religious liberals is that “all religions are of value” and, in a related thought, “science and religion don’t conflict; they simply occupy different spheres of human experience.” In fact, I first found myself irritated by Armstrong when, in The Battle For God, she claimed that the mistake fundamentalists make is that they confuse Science with Myth. The Creation Story, she said today, was never intended to be taken literally—it was a religious meditation on the value of human life.

I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. Religion has always tried to explain things. It is always in conflict with science, because science always has better tools, provable theories, and hence a better explanation, and that's why science has constantly made religion retreat. It's not a regrettable accident of history---it's the inevitable result of having conflicting theories. The only religion that would never conflict with science would be one that made extremely modest claims—that God is unmeasurable, doesn’t do miracles or answer prayers, and only fills in the parts of the human experience that science can’t explain. This is a god of the gaps who gets tinier every year. Anyone want to sign up for that tiny-ass religion? I didn't think so.

As for the claim that “all religions are of value," this only makes sense if you believe, basically, “The purpose of every religion is to teach compassion, and everything besides that is expendable.” Which would seem to suggest that you don’t really need religion at all, do you? Be compassionate, and save your Sundays for something more fun than sitting on a wooden bench. In this respect, I think fundamentalists are right: if you don't take the Bible literally, and you're not an atheist or an agnostic, you're just kidding yourself. The Bible never intended to be a bunch of pious stories you could ignore if you wanted. If it's true, then science is wrong; if it's not, there are a thousand books that are smarter, wiser, and better written. Read those.

Anyway, when it comes to fighting the conservative stranglehold on Christianity in the media, I have a different idea: First, educate the media—forcefully and repeatedly—to distinguish between “Christianity” and “evangelical Christianity.” If every time someone called themselves a Christian, some reporter would ask, “Do you mean that you think everyone should convert to Christianity if they want to avoid hell?” we’d know a hell of a lot more about their form of Christianity than we do now. If every time Bush said, “Islam is a great religion,” someone asked him, “So are you saying that Muslims aren’t going to hell, even though the Bible seems to suggest otherwise?” he’d have to either put up or shut up: sound like a reasonable, loving human being, or cater to the assholes in his religious base. If people really knew what evangelical Christians actually believe—and especially the things they’re embarrassed to admit they believe—they’d be a lot less popular than they are. (The worst thing about evangelical Christians is that they don’t even really believe in democracy—they only want a democracy where everyone agrees with their interpretation of the Bible so no one sins and then God rewards the virtuous finally-Christian nation with prosperity. This is precisely why evangelical politics should be fought so relentlessly. But of course that’s another whole essay as well.)

Second, you can’t combat bad religion with good religion, because bad religion lies, appeals to ugly human instincts (avodance of fear, lust for cultural power, etc.), and can’t be trusted to fight fair. But you CAN combat bad religion with an equally passionate and militant humanism. I want to see bumper stickers that say, “Religion was made for man, not man for religion—Jesus” and “Get your religion away from my freedom,” and “Happiness—it’s not just a good idea; it’s constitutional,” and “One democracy under as many gods as people want.” In fact, let’s dust off Thomas Jefferson and, with him, declare “eternal emnity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” You can’t fight “God wants everyone to be Christian!” with a cry of “God is more complicated than that!” But you can definitely say, “Your form of religion is dangerous and get the fuck away from me with your fear-mongering, anti-democracy God.” And I hate to say it, but if it came down to a fight, I’d be willing to pick up a gun to defend myself. I can tolerate everyone except someone who wants to silence me.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Who's Gonna Mow My Grass?

On top of the other depressing news in my life, Buck Owens died yesterday. It's not exactly unexpected that he should die, of course---the brother was 76, after all. But it really IS sad that he died without the mainstream respect that accompanied Johnny Cash. The most recent insult I recall was in the movie Remember the Titans, where black and white high school teammates in the 60s are trying to get along with each other. The white guy---the lone country boy, even among the whites---plays Owen's "Tiger By The Tail" on his radio, and, rocking his head and clapping along, asks his black roomie, "Isn't this cool?" And the black guy says, "Do the words 'cruel and unusual punishment' mean anything to you?" Everyone in the audience laughed, just as they were no doubt supposed to. That's the joke---no one's supposed to like country music! Ha ha!

As one of the people in that theater who was thrilled to hear Buck Owens---only to realize I was being set up as the butt of a joke, dammit!---may I just drop some history on the entire country? Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were the representatives of the "Bakersfield sound" that later morphed into both "outlaw country" (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings) and "country rock" (Gram Parsons, The Eagles). [Side note: And before you laugh and say, "What does country music have to do with California?" remember that California---specifically Hollywood, of all places---was also the home of the best of the country swing bands from the late forties to mid fifties, because it was the only place with deep enough pockets to support large orchestras on a wide scale.] And unlike the outlaw countrymen or the relatively gloomy country rockers who followed, Buck Owen's work was very similar to the spirit of country swing in that he sounds like he's having a great time even when he's getting his heart destroyed. And, like the best country musicians from Hank Williams on up, he adapted country to other modern musical idioms without losing the basic elements of country---not only musical (the Hammond organ, the slide guitar), but lyrical (accent and honky-tonk obsessions intact).

This country's remaining good country musicians are the ones who remember that---people like the Dixie Chicks and, God bless him, Dwight Yoakam, who seems to have tried to include Buck Owens on every album he wrote in the last ten years. Mainstream country has long since abandoned every traditional country theme except the one of class anxiety. Even the honky tonks on modern country radio sound family-friendly. Far too much country these days hammers on the themes of a.) I love my parents, b.) I love my lover, or c.) generic preachments about living life for today, standing up for what you believe in, etc. . . . always in generic, movie-friendly, Diane Warren-and-VH1 style, with the "real" country coding relegated to execrable novelty songs like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."

Before Nashville went off that particular cliff, Buck Owens was country's alchemist, weaving '60s rock idioms into traditional country and always coming out with both the artistic and country side up. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I promise you you've never heard a country song quite like "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" or "Tall Dark Stranger"---the latter even has a little surfabilly in there. And yet as fresh as they sound, you'd never mistake it for anything but country---due in large part to Owens' own voice, which is a pure Hollywood cowboy drawl as distinctive as Andy Devine's.

Unlike Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris, however, Buck Owens eventually stopped writing new material, stopped producing new albums, and never quite stopped being on Hee-Haw even after that form of country wasn't cool anymore. (Every picture I ever saw him has him in the traditional Golden-Age rhinestone-studded country suit favored by everyone from Webb Pierce to Porter Wagoner, but by nobody who's actually hip these days.) Last I heard he was running a little restaurant in Cali where he would personally perform for you while you were eating. I'd always dreamed of swinging by some time when I had a real job with enough money to make the trip. Alas, that won't happen now.

Find some Buck Owens today and give him a listen. (His biggest hits were "Act Naturally" and "Tiger By the Tail," but anything on his Best Of album is a whole lot of fun.) He deserves to be better known and better loved, and anyone who treats him as a punchline just wasn't listening.

Screwed! --starring Dave in the title role

I haven't posted in a few days because right after my last post I had the worst two days I have had yet in New York. (I'm not going to suggest it's the worst day I will EVER have, of course, since there's probably a mugging out there with my name on it. But still.)

Admittedly, I've been on edge ever since my bank account dropped to about $700, which is less than my rent. But it started out okay enough. I woke up on Thursday and discovered that Turner Classic Movies, in an attempt to keep me from ever moving again, had decided to run an Akira Kurosawa mini-festival of The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo. For at least an hour I forgot my entire to-do list for the day and sat up, blissfully watching Toshiro Mifune scowl his way through a flood of black-and-white travails. (And watching quite intently, because of course with a foreign film you have to watch every frame and read the lines. You can't pick it up just by listening to the dialogue.)

But then I got a long-awaited call from UPS, who said that I had a package in their office, two blocks away. Immediately I was nervous, because what was in the package was either a.) the title to my car, so I could finally sell the damn thing (and hence, make rent and give myself another month's buffer in looking for work), or b.) a message from the Florida DMV saying, "We couldn't process your temporary check, so you've got no title and you spent thirty precious dollars on useless overnight mailings." Full of trepidation, I collected myself and, saying a sad goodbye to Throne of Blood, went to take a shower.

Today the shower had no hot water at all. It wasn't the kind of thing where you turn on the hot water and you get cold. Instead I got a trickle, as if the shower was just a lukewarm water bottle for a really large hamster. I waited, gave it some time, tried again . . . still just a trickle. Fine, I thought. I'll just pick up the UPS package and decide what happens after that.

Good news! It was my actual title. Which means the that Florida DMV is less picky about my checks than is T-Mobile, since a minute later T-Mobile also texted me to tell me that they hadn't been able to process my last payment, and I still owed them $150. But I didn't care. I could finally sell my car! Of course, there was also a downside: it turns out my car is a '91 Acura Integra, not a '94, which dropped its Blue Book resale value from $2500 to $1375. But it's still enough to cover rent. So whatever.

Except I looked at the clock and realized it was 11:30. Damn! Because I'd been watching Kurosawa (and waiting for the hot water that didn't come), I'd left my car victim to the parking nazis, who demand I move my car between 11 and 12:30. Another $45 ticket. Ah well. At least I had my title now.

So I went to my car . . . and discovered it wasn't ticketed. It was missing. I called the police and was asked to leave a message. Since there was nothing else to do, I decided to take a much-needed, de-stressing shower . . . and discovered that there was now NO water coming out of either tap---or, for that matter, from any tap in the apartment. Not only could I not shower, but I had to swallow the morning's toothpaste the hard way. Two more stressful and stinky hours later, I'd still gotten no response from the police, and I called again. Again, I got an answering machine. I left a second message. Finally, I called once more around 4:00 pm---after wasting the whole day unable to leave my house and afraid to miss the potential call, though the shower eventually de-paralyzed---and got through to an actual human being who confirmed that my car hadn't been stolen. It had been towed. I'd have to travel way south to Pier 76 (at 38th street) to pay the release fee ($185 plus $20 a day if it had been stored a while), then train it back up to 207th street with the receipt and pick up the car.

In other words, it would take too long for me to do it in the time I had left. So I'd have to do it the following day, for an additional $20 storage fee.

I won't share all the details because it would actually counteract the effects of Xanax, but the upshot is that it took ALL DAY for me to finally get my car back, and the final cost was $245 I never budgeted for and could ill afford to part with.

I spent Saturday at the Stamford Crossword Tournament in Stamford Connecticut because I wanted to see all my puzzle friends, and I thought also I might be able to get a little work on the side from various puzzle editors---puzzle editing being one of the few areas in the working world where I actually know people and have actual experience and a hiring edge. What I found instead was a phalanx of editors saying, in essence, "Gosh, there's really not enough work to go around, and what there is wouldn't pay enough to help you." I seemed to be the only optimist in the whole hotel, and maintaining my perky smile became something of a strain by the time I came home last night.

It's weird, in a way. I was terrified to move to New York because I was afraid I wouldn't find a job and that I'd eventually wind up hungry and homeless. And that turns out to be exactly what's threatening to occur. The fear is really unpleasant. But I DO have my car listed on Craigslist, and I have several people e-mailing that they're interested, so I imagine I'll sell it soon. And there's something to be said about staring down this fear in person: instead of avoiding New York for fear of failure, I'm already planning a bunch of different (and possibly naive) ways to fight back: scouring the university jobs lists, camping outside various magazines and refusing to move without an assignment, etc. I've got my resume on file at three temp agencies, I've got an article under consideration at Slate, I've got a prospective agent who's promised to get back to me on my book this week, I've got three stories I'm sending to This American Life, and at my professor's recommendation, I used his name and asked the vice president of Putnam Publishing to help me out. What I don't have is any responses from anyone, and a rapidly dwindling bank account. I could really use a break right now.

Which reminds me---I'd better go down to T-Mobile and pay my phone bill. It wouldn't do if the car buyers---the only people who can help me make this month's rent---couldn't get through to me . . .

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Notes on the Conservation of Space

A bartender told me the other night that she thought I was paying too much for my apartment. "Seven-fifty?" she said. "For a Washington Heights apartment you're sharing with three other people? You could do better."

I haven't really looked, but some margin-of-the-crossword-puzzle math suggests she may be right. A friend of mine who lives smack in midtown on 8th avenue and 23rd pays about $1800 a month, and if you divide that among four people you'd get a paltry $450 per roomie. Of course, he lives in a one-bedroom with a bunk bed, so everyone would have to be very good friends. But once you alter a few factors---radiating out a few boroughs, for example---I can sort of see the bartender's point.

But still, I haven't had a moment of buyer's remorse. This is not only because I really like my roommates---they're all smart, good-humored, and humblingly considerate---but because I think I've always wanted to live in a tree house. Or a wardrobe. Someplace tiny.

I don't know why exactly. It surely goes back to childhood, where, whenever it was time to play hide and seek, I'd make a beeline for the nearest closet. I'd hunker down, my eyes would quietly adjust, and eventually I could make out shoes around me, clothes hanging above, and tiny leaks of light through the door. And that was my small, easy-to-comprehend world for the duration.

Probably most children, even if they never have a tree house, develop some kind of private nook, even if it's just a hole dug in the back yard or a hollow area in the bordering shrubs. (I had both.) Maybe it seems that no place is quite as fun, if it doesn't also feel a little stolen.

There's another issue too: I honestly don't know what I'd do with a lot of useless space. (There's a moment in the dystopian novel Neuromancer where our hero, retiring for the night, pays a little bit of money for what amounts to a tiny electric sleeping slot, and I remember thinking, "Damn, what a great invention!") I remember when my brother was single and he'd bought his first house, he initially had a whole empty room that looked rather odd. "I think I'm going to buy a plant or a big chair or something," he said. But then, fortunately, he got married and will soon be a father. Problem solved! But that has always seemed to be the other deadly trap of real estate: if you buy a big house, the next thing you wind up doing is buying furniture adn other decorative stuff---stuff that, by definition, you didn't need before---just to fill up the rooms you now own! It's damn near tautological, and if I were ever condemned by the ancient Greek gods like Sisyphus or Tantalus, that's how I'd be tortured for all time: I'd be handed real estate listings and an Ikea catalog, and Zeus would say, "Find a house, and then choose too much furniture for it. Move in. Then find another house that's too big for the furniture you've got. Move in, and then buy even more furniture than you need. Then buy a bigger house yet, and so on forever." I'd rather push a rock.

I currently live out of a single room with a bed, a TV, my computer, and walls of books and boardgames. If I had my druthers, my computer would be a laptop, all my DVDs would be on my hard drive, and the computer would project TV onto the wall. Then all I'd surround myself with would be books and clothes---the smells of my youth. Even as it stands, there are entire sections of my room that I don't use, like the space between the computer desk and the game closet, and that other space sort of near the trash can next to the television. I'd have a much more efficient system in place if I was allowed to shape my own room like a jigsaw piece.

"Wait, Dave!" I hear you say. "With such a tiny, efficient system, what do you do about---ahem---company?" That's never been an issue, and fuck you for reminding me. But whenever I've met a woman in the past, we generally agree to go to her place, on the theory that she's probably nothing like me. (And because, culturally speaking, women are more likely to have nice places.) In a worst-case scenario, we just do it in the car. That's fun, too. But of course, I no longer have a car, nor do most other people here, so I'm no longer sure where I'd go for Plan C. Maybe a 24-hour bank lobby?

I'm sure when the situation arises we'll come up with something creative out of necessity. In the meantime I'll be over here, using my pillows to make a little fort.

Monday, March 20, 2006

I've Got Your Good Ship Lollipop Right Here, I'm Afraid

Tomorrow I look for actual work. (Thanks for the referral, Stacy!) In the meantime, I've been sitting in my room, sitting very still and trying not to spend any more money. Because unless I get a sudden influx of cash, I will actually be unable to pay this month's rent on time. Alas, that's what it seems to take to get me motivated: brinksmanship!

So I've been writing and playing online games and---thanks to Turner Classic Movies---having naughty, naughty thoughts about Shirley Temple.

I speak, of course, of the Shirley Temple of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, made in 1947 when she was a saucy, unspeakably pert vixen of nineteen. That showed yesterday, and while I was continually agog at her surprising sexiness then (she plays a high school girl with a very funny crush on Cary Grant), I was able to suppress it because the movie itself is hilarious in its own right, plus it features Rudy Vallee (the Golden Age Hollywood answer to Gilmore Girls's Bernard Herriman), and Myrna Loy, who has been so irresistible to me since The Thin Man that I was able to redirect part of my passion toward a less creepy, more age-appropriate target. (Which is what Cary Grant does, too, not to give anything away.)

But today, as if to underline their complete commitment to my moral undoing, TCM just showed 1949's Adventure in Baltimore, which lacks comedy, big-name actors, or any other distractions, and just stars Shirley Temple, age 21, as the prettiest goddamn thing in all of 1905 Maryland. Those wide eyes! That turned-up nose! That irresistible pout! Those coltish legs and that girlish, crazy-making figure! (I think she may have been merely an A cup, but proportion is everything, and in both these movies her body effortlessly vibrates at some angelic golden mean.) I'm not exaggerating when I say that, the first time she whirled to defiantly face the camera, I actually caught my breath.

But it gets worse! The story has this gorgeous, gorgeous creature playing the daughter of a pastor! The naughty daughter of a pastor! And how does she rebel in 1905? By becoming a feminist! She stands up to men! She knocks down doors! She trangresses sexual mores! At the climax of the film, she even gets in a brawl while fighting for women's suffrage, and does it without breaking her awesome cuteness for even a second! And did I mention she's also an artist? By the end of the movie I was so close to swooning you'd have sworn I was wearing a corset.

And of course, the whole time I've been thinking, Dave, this is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong! Because not only is she the most famous child in history, but she grew up to serve in Ronald Reagan's administration! (She was ambassador to Ghana and then Czechoslovakia---and actually, she served Carter, too, but why complicate things? She's a lifelong pro-war Republican.) But the heart has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing, and in my fantasies, she's thirty years old---fully a woman and yet still as pert as ever. I explain to her the responsibility of government to provide for its citizens, the importance of all kinds of security (financial, medical, political) to the continued economic health of the nation, and she keeps drinking Shirley Temple Blacks (did I mention we're in a low-lit tropical bar?) and leans forward, sweet rum on her lips, and murmurs "My God, Dave, you're changing my views completely! Is it hot in here or is it just this terribly confining sweater I long to be rid of?"

We have sex in black and white, too, by the way. I can't picture her any way else. (Maybe that's for the best---for all I know, she may have been blotchy in real life. Maybe monochrome film saved her career. I don't care.) And, just like in the movies, this part of the fantasy is sort of vague---I can only picture the curtains blowing outside the open window above us.

And you know what? As soon as I wrote that last sentence, I realized what the attraction was. Could there be any object of sexual desire more associated with shame and guilt? (Well, okay---the Virgin Mary. But moving on . . .) Some damaged unconscious part of my brain saw her---beautiful, desirable Shirley Temple---and then, at the first whiff of shame, bit down like a terrier. There you go, Dave! snarls this libidinous dog. This is what sex should be like! Shame on you! Shame, shame, and ever more unending shame! That's how this game works at its most seamless: You're only allowed to have fun if you walk in knowing you deserve to be punished later! Grrrrrr!

Which makes me think: it must have been hell for Shirley when she was dating. I read an interview with Rita Hayworth who said that the difficulty in all her exes was that "they went to bed with Gilda and woke up with just plain old Rita." How much worse would it be if you knew that, on some level, everyone you were dating felt guilty for wanting you? If I were in her position, I think I'd have had my coming-out party among the Amish.

Un-Erin Go Bragh, As It Were

Ancient Irish culture was dedicated to cattle in much the same way that the Indian culture was: they counted wealth in cattle, treated milk cows like revered members of the family, wrote songs and hymns in praise of cows, and so forth. I mention this just so that at least one actual fact about Ireland gets disseminated while everyone's getting blitzed on green beer. (I don't mean to complain, but part of me wants to remind everyone that St. Patrick's Day really ought to be more than just Mardi Gras with a repetitive design scheme.)

My plan for my first-ever St. Patrick's Day in New York City was to actually see the parade. I ws going to go down there, report on the doings, and come back and type up a story about it. I even had a great first line: "I woke up on St. Patrick's Day with a hangover---not because I'd been drinking, but because I'd already inhaled so much second-hand booze from everyone else in Manhattan who'd apparently started drinking at midnight the day before. By the time I got outside there was so much beer vapor in the air that it formed a green mist that veiled 59th Street, and the birds were all lying down."

Alas, I woke up too late to reach the parade before it was over. And I was going to watch the last half hour of it on TV, but it was running against a rerun of the Colbert Report, and like any good working humorist I have to study.

In fact, I don't remember what exactly took up most of the day---oh, wait; it's coming back to me: I had to figure out how to get a replacement title for my car, which involved finding some way to prove my new address was my new address, running to get an acceptable form of payment, finding websites, filling out forms, talking long distance to people in various government offices . . . just the sort of day that really makes me want to drink.

And yet for some reason I didn't drink. Instead, I saw V for Vendetta with my friend Ryan---a movie I quite enjoyed, and find deeply subversive on a basic comic-book level, but which feels like it might be one good argument away from losing my allegiance; as if the whole dizzy spectable was erected on some deeply offensive false premise that I haven't noticed yet. For now, I'm happily entertained in a critical ignorance which may persist for the rest of my life.

When we emerged from the movie, and Ryan went home, it was midnight, and surely time to get my drink on. But the thing is, none of my usual haunts are Irish pubs. (I tend to prefer vaguely western-themed and biker-friendly dives where people start dancing on the bar on a normal night; how's St. Patrick's gonna top that?) So it seemed unlikely that anyone would be doing much that was special. As it turned out, I was right---not only that, but for some reason, every time I entered a bar that I normally scope out as my own, I didn't feel like staying. Maybe I don't like crowds, or fighting for the attention of the bartender. I know I don't like beer, so maybe this is just the wrong holiday for me anyway.

All I know is, I passed a 24-hour Ukrainian restaurant called Veselka---Ryan's boyfriend had introduced me to it weeks before---and I realized that the only thing I'd eaten that day was a hummus bagel and a few bean burritos. Hey! I thought. I'll have an un-Saint Patrick's Day! Not only will I not drink, but to celebrate the diversity of being in New York, I'll have non-Irish food all day!

So I went in and ordered the borscht. And by the way, when I tell you I ordered borscht in a Ukrainian restaurant in The Village, you may be picturing some small, dimly-lit hole in the wall run by grumpy folks from the Old Country whose close air smells faintly of cabbage. But nyet! This is a large, brightly-lit 24-hour diner that, until you see the menu, you'd swear was a standard, vaguely fifties-style affair: plenty of room; lots of young people; a polite, alert, and fast-working staff. And the food! I'd never had borscht before, for the excellent reason that I've never liked beets. And yet I'd tried the borscht here---at Ryan's boyfriend's suggestion---and found it absolutely delicious. I couldn't remember how or why, and this was my second stop, so I figured I'd pay attention this time.

I don't know how they do it---wasn't Rasputin an alchemist?---but the borscht at Veselka's is so beautiful I swear it can cure a broken heart. I was already perfectly content when I sat down, but after the borscht, I was actually raised to a happier plane that I hadn't even been aware of. I tried to figure out what, specifically, was so great about it, but all I could come up with was this: the borscht at Veselka's literally does everything right. It doesn't taste like beets. It's a sweet broth that tastes like tomato soup with the tomatoey parts removed, and the foods in the broth---including barley, carrots, soft soft meat, and even lima beans, which I normally loathe---are all at just the right volume and in just the right mix, so that the meat acts as a perfect vehicle to deliver the broth, and the lima beans are so muted you'd swear they were split peas. And a cup of soup is under five bucks! I love New York!

I also ordered a chicken sandwich, which was kind of a waste, because it came on a bun---I chose challah bread, which it turns out I don't like---with lettuce, tomato and pickles piled next to it in a separate sector. I just didn't feel like assembling my own damn sandwich, and the chicken didn't mix with the bread that well, so I just ate the slab of chicken and let the rest of it go to hell. So get the borscht, try the boiled pierogi, and then keep your other expectations low.

Anyway, I ended the day by lying in bed and reading a few essays by G. K. Chesterton, and so I went to sleep that night feeling very fond of the British. It doesn't get much more non-Irish than that. Erin Go Elsewhere, Y'all.

Friday, March 17, 2006

New Frontiers in Employment

The book deal is going more slowly than I'd anticipated. (Though the fact that I actually expected to get an agent, sell the book, and start living off the advance in less than two months tells you less about the slowness of the book industry than it does about my own delusional optimism.) This means that, some time next week, I'll probably have to start looking for temporary employment. As a result, everything I see looks like a job. For example, just the other day, I was sitting at a luncheon counter in full cowboy regalia, when a middle-aged Haitian woman walked up to me and said, "I love that hat! How can I get one?"

"Easy," I said. "I got it in Tallahassee, and it cost me just under twenty bucks."

She got an excited look in her eyes. "You know what that means? You should invest a little money and buy a hundred of them. You could sell them at the south entrance of Central Park. You could sell them for forty or forty-five dollars each. And you'd get it."

And she made it sound so easy! For a second, I actually pictured myself doing just that. It would be just like turning money into money! Plus I'd be my own boss, and I'd work out of doors . . . with the dirt blowing all over me . . . and the rain . . . and I'd have to figure out what sizes of hats to buy . . . and I'd take a loss every time I guessed wrong . . . plus I'd have to fill out the paperwork for a sales permit . . . and figure out where to get the paperwork in the first place . . . and pony up the money for it out of my dwindling imaginary profits . . . and just like that, the dream died, cut into a thousand ugly practicalities. Stuff like that is easy for people like that Haitian woman, who I imagine also balances her checkbook, does her taxes on time, and saves all her receipts in a cunningly decorated recipe box that she always keeps in the same place and which never gets hidden by an absently placed magazine. Compared to all of that, the simple expedient of dog-walking looks like heaven to me.

I've actually thought about being a dog-walker, which is big business in this city. I like dogs. I'm capable of walking. In fact, I like walking so much that I daresay I'm overqualified.

But tonight I had an epiphany. While I was on the corner of Avenue A and Ninth Street, I saw a company of black professionals---nicely dressed men and women in their forties and fifties---trying to hail a cab. I was checking messages on my phone, and in the few minutes I stood there, I saw cab after cab pass them by as if there weren't five of them standing there and waving. And then I saw a cab swing to a stop to pick up three white people twenty-five feet further down the street.

As I walked over to the group, one of the women was telling another one, "Of course, a lot of the drivers are foreigners, so they've got their own ideas . . . "

"Rough night?" I asked.

"It's unbelievable," said the woman nearest me. "We've been standing here for ten minutes watching these cabs ignore us. And of course they'll pick up other people."

Religion professor Cornel West, late of Harvard University, opens his book Race Matters with a similar story---being trapped in an emergency, unable to get a cab in New York City when time was pressing. And I'd read a similar quote from Richard Pryor who said, "It's amazing---I'll walk out of a meeting where I've made a sixteen-million dollar deal for a movie, and then I can't get a fucking cab." But this was the first time I'd seen it up close. And these people--all of them---were clearly oozing prosperity. I mean, it's not like they were the dreaded black youths with gold fronts on their teeth and low-slung jeans and other sterotypical ghetto signifiers, which I could at least sort of understand, if not exactly sympathize with. These folks wore very nice jackets. They wore elegant, understated hats. And did I mention they were oldish?

"This may be crazy," I said. "But how about I hail a cab for you?" They agreed, although the man pointed out, "It'll have to be two cabs. We won't all fit in one."

So while I'm by no means an expert at the skill yet---I can't whistle worth a hoot, and I was wearing all black, which probably isn't good cab-hailing clothing---I got two cabs under false pretenses and got those nice folks on their way within five minutes.

So that may be my new job: Hailing cabs for black people! I could just stand outside an "urban" club at closing time, and offer my services as everyone left. If I charged even as little as two-fifty a cab, I'd have made five dollars in five minutes tonight. At that rate I could pay my rent for a whole month in as little as twelve hours of work. It's a disgusting situation, it's an affront to human dignity, and it's a shame that it's even possible to profiteer in this way. But obviously someone needs to be doing it. And I was never going to use that Ph.D. anyway.

P.S. An alternate thought just occurred to me: I could drive a cab and be the only cabbie who actually picks up African-Americans. I'd have no competition at all! Except I really suck at directions . . .

The Food Sensitivity Diet

I discovered a foolproof diet a few days ago, and I have to share. It goes something like this:

Step 1: Start your morning with some sort of food that you're mildly allergic to. Like, say, a Liquid Nutrition Drink from your local Starbucks that tastes like blueberries but turns out (after it's all gone and you examine the label) to consist largely of apple juice. Sweet, deadly apple juice.

Step 2: After this, eat anything you want!

Step 3: And enjoy it while you can.

What you eat doesn't really matter, because eight to twelve hours later your body's slow discomfortable rebellion will come to a head and you'll---ahem---expel everything anyway. Besides which, the stomach ache starts almost immediately so you won't feel that hungry in any event. I do recommend, however, that you avoid eating anything expensive, unless you like the idea of throwing twenties into a cesspool.

Also, this diet works best for the unemployed, since you'll feel achy and you'll want to lie down and moan for several hours between trips to the bathroom. Don't operate heavy equipment or try any fine line drawing, as throughout the day your body will be racked with unpredictable shudders. And if you're traveling on the subway late at night (let's say you get on at 14th Street) and you're not sure how long you'll be able to hold out till 185th Street, it might be a good idea to pick up a discarded plastic bag lying on the seat next to you, just in case. If you time it properly, even if you have a sudden accident at, say, 96th Street, it may be possible for you to contain the damage so perfectly that you make no noise, your clothes remain spotless, and no one notices the funny guy with the bag over his mouth. Which is good, because if you're riding, say, the A express uptown, you may have to hold on to the filled plastic bag for about thirty blocks, pretending nothing's wrong, until the train stops at the next station and you can get to a trashcan.

This is all theoretical, of course. And I can claim that because---and I say it with some pride---no one noticed at all, and as I climbed aboard again at 125th, there was literally no indication that anything had happened or that I even felt unwell. (How fortunate that I always carry mouthwash!) I'm fine now, thanks. And I'm a few pounds lighter, if somewhat malnourished.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Getting My Morning Shock of Adrenaline . . .

As I write this, I'm watching Turner Classic Movies with the mute on. I don't know what the film is, but it's a wartime musical that stars Jimmy Stewart as a navy officer and Eleanor Powell as, presumably, a tap dancer who can't act. And the only way I can explain what's happening onscreen is that, while I wasn't looking, the two of them must have gotten together and said, “Hey, let’s put on a show on the deck of the old Wyoming-class battleship!” All of a sudden I want to listen to the Village People.

(Sidenote: I just added my first ever fact to Wikipedia. The article on the New York and Wyoming class battleships described them as having a “crew compliment.” I changed the i to the requisite e, and in so doing I believe I have just used my English Ph.D. for the first time since I left Tallahassee.)

Anyway, the reason I'm posting right now is that I just took a shower in my apartment and I have to sit still for a few minutes while I wait for the skin to regrow. And this gives me the opportunity to grouse a bit on the topic.

I have said in the past that the only downside to my Washington Heights apartment is that it requires me to walk two and a half blocks to do laundry. But the actual worst thing about the place is the shower, and I stare it down balefully every day. It's not that it has bad water pressure---it's actually fine in that department. And it's not that it takes forever to warm up or has hard-to-twist handles. The problem is that it's deeply, deply schizophrenic. If it were an employee, it would be like a brilliant CEO who gets fired for showing up drunk. Or it has ADD. Or it's criminally insane. What it isn't is a helpful shower.

In short, the damn thing can't maintain a temperature. Every day I establish an acceptable starting warmth for my ablutions, and every day, the moment I get comfortable, the shower has tried to argue back. And what's maddening is that it doesn't even freak out with any consistency. I'll be bending over, soaping up my legs, say, and I'll hear a hiss and I have to jump back from the stream or find myself plunged into an icy stream like they have in the Coors ads. Or the stream will jump just a bit and I know I have to escape again or I'll get burn scars and people will think I'm that boiled baby from the urban legend. These fits never last long, and so taking a shower is an actual dance of fear---stealing a few precious moments of eighty-degree washing, while always keeping one paranoid muscle tensed in case the fucking thing lashes out at me.

I'm not a morning dancer, but so far I've managed to keep my gonads unsinged and I've become quite practiced at washing myself BESIDE the shower's stream, tiptoeing in the corner in a false show of sharing equal space, when really we're about as equal as Hannity and Colmes. ("Look, crazy boy," I muttered yesterday. "I'm just over here doing my thing, and I'll try you again if I need something rinsed.")

Today, however, it pulled a new one. While rinsing my back in the soothing warmth I'd somehow managed to coax out of the nozzle, the water turned entirely cold for a split second, and then resumed its former temp. It's like drinking wine that turns, just for a second, into a banana daiquiri. It shouldn't be possible, and can't be pleasant for anyone. Later, in a show of equal-but-opposite perversity, it scalded me---just for a second, again, like I was whipping my hand through a candle flame. But something like that will definitely trigger fight-or-flight.

I assume all this occurs because I'm sharing water with everyone in the apartment and everyone on the same water pipes above and below me. Perhaps this means that whenever anyone anywhere in the building flushes or turns a tap, I get the brunt of it. Which raises another odd issue: we had to invent this situation. At no other time or place in history did anyone, that I can think of, have to cope with schizoid water. Pipes have frozen. Water has boiled and not cooled down. But the cowboy on the range pouring freshly-pumped lake water onto his head will at least experience consistency. We had to invent the tenement to get my current situation. There's an upside, I guess---I can imagine that, if I were truly sensitive, I could start to "listen" to the shower and interpret the entire building ("Ah, a slight dip toward coldness; Mrs. Uwambe in 3C must be heating her baby's milk. . ."). It might make a good mystery story. But for now, I'm just a frightened little lab rat, with nothing to fight and nowhere to fly to, for five to ten minutes every goddamned morning.

Oh, look; it's raining outside! I think I'll walk to the subway without an umbrella, just so I can remember what water's supposed to behave like. I guess the city drives everyone crazy eventually. Even hydrogen.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Fuddrucking Around

I stopped at a Fuddrucker’s on the way back from IkeaLand in Paramus N.J. (It’s called simply Ikea, but with three huge floors, play areas, and its own road—Ikea Lane—I assume this was an oversight. Even the parking area has colors and letters.) Like any traveler, it’s nice to come across something that reminds you of home, and Fuddrucker’s came to Tucson only a few years before I left. At the time, I was a fundamentalist Christian and rarely ate there just to protest the discomfort it caused me. Now I could face it with equanimity, and anyway I was hungry for something humongous.

In my furniture-hauling haste, I’d neglected to bring something to read during my meal, but I noticed that Fuddruckers had a little game-filled placemat for the kids, so I took that to my table. However, I noticed that it was a thoroughly uninspired placemat, with “brain teasers” and “riddles” so musty that they’d obviously just downloaded the whole kaboodle from So to help out, I decided to see if I could answer the riddles in a more interesting manner than they expected. Here are the questions. Below are the answers I came up with.


1. What has 18 legs and catches flies?
2. You are always going and leaving me behind.
3. What goes up when the rain comes down?
4. How do you divide five potatoes equally between three people?
5. What has three feet but no legs?
6. I can see it and you cannot.
7. It has ears but cannot hear.
8. In the evening I looked, and there it was. In the morning I looked, and it was gone.
9. As I was going to St. Ives
I met a man with seven wives
Each wife had seven sacks
Each sack had seven cats
Each cat had seven kits
How many were going to St. Ives?


10. Who should you call when your feet hurt?
11. What body of water do ghosts like best?
12. What is a sailor’s bellybutton?
13. What is an Inquisitor’s favorite mathematical expression?


1. Two spiders, plus Renfield from Dracula.
2. Dead skin cells, or possibly mites.
3. Humidity.
4. Give each person five-thirds of a potato. Better yet, give each person one potato and donate the others to charity. What are we fighting for?
5. A line of dactylic trimeter.
6. The reasonableness of my opinions.
7. A deaf elephant.
8. Too many options! The moon? The stars? Night-blooming cereus? The daily low? Commercials for phone sex? The short-lived element unnilhexium? I’m stopping now.
9. “At least one,” but the complete answer is impossible to determine without contacting the St. Ives Chamber of Commerce. Note that another possible answer is ‘Nine,’ if you assume that I met them in line for the St. Ives Ferry that we were both going to take, and if you assume that animals don’t count. (After all, they’re in sacks, so they’re probably going to drown them anyway. That’s easier than feeding 343 kittens. What would their house smell like?)

10. The Godfather of “Sole”!
11. The Ghoul-f of Mexico!
12. Unless you rephrase it as “what do you call a sailor’s bellybutton,” it’s a pretty stupid question. I call mine “Dr. Innie.”
13. The Witch of Agnesi, which was named in 1875 and describes a plane cubic curve that has the equation x2y = 4a2(2a-y).

Okay, I made that last question up just to show off. But honestly, with only three riddles, that section of the placemat felt kind of thin. Why do people write placemats without consulting me? Our children's education is at stake.

Sorry for the Delay

I've had a lot to write about, but I haven't really been writing on the blog. On Tuesday, for example, I found out that they were holding auditions for the fourth season of Last Comic Standing. I went and wrote an article about it, but I haven't posted it for fear of ruining its saleability. I've been organizing my bedroom and my life in general, and for a guy like me, doing that is like swimming upstream. So for example, yesterday I intended to start my day with a quick drive over to Islip to pick up a NordicTrack that had been listed for a song on Craiglist. But between trying to find my car, finding it parked in once I was there, and getting lost five times (twice on the way there, three times on the way back), the whole enterprise took six and a half hours and I simply slept for the next sixteen.

Which leads me to my last problem: I'm not always very good at listening to my body, but I've been really really tired lately, and I suspect it's the stress of the move finally catching up to me. Since I don't want to get sick, I've been treating myself very gently and only writing (for example) when the spirit really moves me. But as of today I've got 95% of everything I need to start my career here in earnest (including, finally, something as silly as printer paper), and I'm feeling centered enough that I can contribute again. Sorry again for the hiatus.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Brief Note of Serendipity

In the coolest iPod moment I’ve had since I moved here, last night as I entered the 181st Street subway station, ready to start my evening, the iPod suddenly started playing “Here Come Cowboys” by the Psychedelic Furs. (I was wearing my best hat and boots, too.) Then, while I was taking the A train south, damned if I didn’t hear Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” just as I was passing through Harlem. The only thing that would have made it more perfect is if, at some point during the trip, I’d heard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” But I figure, just give it time. As dependent as I’ve become on my iPod, it’s only a matter of time before I get some other temptingly meaningful-seeming musical coincidence to report. And thanks to my trip this summer, I now know to describe such a moment as “Celestine-Prophecy-esque.” (After all, if it wasn’t meaningful, why did God let it happen? Answer me that, Mister Skeptic!)

The Neighborhood

On a happier note, I love my neighborhood. With the slight caveat that it’s a good hour by subway from the main nightlife of Manhattan (Chelsea, The Village, The Meat Packing District), there’s a lot to love about Washington Heights. (If you ask a real estate agent, apparently she will refer to it as a subcommunity called “Hudson Heights,” but everyone else says Washington.) From asking around, I’ve ascertained the following facts about the area: It’s currently populated by a very diverse mix of people: there’s a genuine Indian restaurant down the street (warning! This is the real non-gringo deal, so don’t order the vindaloo unless you’re already under local anesthetic), a breakfast shop run by a young Greek couple, and a bank that seems predominantly Latina-influenced, though I can’t tell how much is Puerto Rican, how much is Cuban, or any of that. All I know is, I’m hearing a lot of Spanish.

But the main ethnic type is old German Jewish ladies who have lived here for decades. According to one woman I met at the coffee shop (and who, by the way, spoke fluent Russian), this area was heavily populated after World War II by Holocaust survivors. “Of course, there are fewer of them every day,” said my informant. But I was elated. What better place for an aspiring comedian than a region suffused with Yiddish?

The most amazing thing about this region is that it really does have a sense of community. I’ve become a regular at the breakfast place already, and whenever I’m there, a regular cast of characters files in, grabbing coffee, chatting and gossiping, and showing genuine concern for each other. (“How’s your mother doing?” “Did your sister get over that cold?” etc.) I like to think that at least part of the reason is that the neighborhood was settled by Jewish mothers and other yenta types. But there’s such a spectrum of languages, skin tones, ages and lifestyles that I really feel like I’m at the snack bar in the U.N. I’d heard this truth about New York for years, but it’s quite something else to experience it. After my very first day of this—when a middle-aged Haitian woman asked about a German shopkeeper’s grandson in New Orleans—that I realized, “No wonder everyone says Friends is fake!”

I’ve never been much of a joiner of any group or community, preferring to keep my membership on the outskirts----close enough to make knowledgeable jokes, far away enough not to be implicated in any absurdity. But this is the first time that I’ve actually understood what people value about a sense of community, and why so many people in New York (and other large cities) identify themselves by their neighborhood. I could suddenly see why, if the place was on fire, people might actually choose to stay and die rather than lose their memories. It’s still not my thing, but it feels to me the way I felt when I first noticed children are actually cute: I’m not one of those normal people, but I could see myself being converted. I think I get it now, and it’s quite a thing to learn.

I live, by the way, right across from a monument to Fort Washington, which was established during the Revolutionary War and has a plaque that mentions, alluringly, that it was briefly lost to the British and then taken back “after a fierce battle” that I’ve never heard of. There’s also a place called The Cloisters about ten blocks up the street, which apparently used to be an operating cloister and is now some kind of park or museum. And in between them is the coffee shop, the bank, the supermarket, the local bar. Again, I’m getting a sense of what it must be like to live in a place with actual historical resonance, like Rome or Paris. So now, for the first time in my life, I’m actually interested in the history of the place where I live. This never happened in Tucson or Kansas City, and certainly wasn’t an issue in Tallahassee. But now I have the bug. Now all I need is money to support my research habit . . .

Dang, but I’m happy.

Duane Reade vs. My Needs

In an effort to save money (I’m not particularly desperate, but save now, worry less later, you know), I bought the fixings for that staple of poor college students, the tortilla: rice, tomatoes, refried beans, etc. Only I discovered that, in my hasty packing, I’d forgotten to bring a can opener. And none of my roommates (I have three) seem to have one—or if they do, it’s not in the main kitchen area.

It’s humiliating to own actual food that you cannot access. So two days ago, after a disastrous misadventure with the subway (where I found myself on 4th Street instead of 23rd like I’d planned, only it was midnight and this forced cancellation of my earlier plans), I also found myself across the street from a 24-hour Duane Reade pharmacy—a common sight in Manhattan.

Well, what the hell, I thought. I’d just spent an hour getting from my home out to this place. I don’t want to just turn around empty handed. Maybe they have a can opener! And so I went shopping. I should mention, by the way, that I also forgot to bring plates, utensils, and any cups bigger than a shot glass. (I have four of those, so if I fill them all and then go back for seconds, it’s like I’ve just finished a real adult drink.) So I thought, while I was there, I should check for that sort of thing as well.

So allow me to report that this Duane Reade, despite having two levels and ceiling-mounted displays to maximize space, had no cups, no plates, no utensils, and no can opener. What they had instead were shower curatain rings, baby teething beads, needle-nosed pliers, a twenty-four-hour lamp timer, disks of Clip Art software, and—I feel silly pointing this out—a whole lot of canned food, which I guess you’re supposed to open through ESP and erosion.

Still I’m glad I went. If I ever wake up at night and think, “Holy shit! It’s three in the morning and I desperately need a breast pump!”, now I know where to go.


My week-long nightmare is over. As of today, I have internet access again, and almost everything else doesn’t matter. There’s nothing like quitting cold turkey to give you real clarity about your addiction. I’ve had a list of things to do—sell my car, locate a series of agents, find the cool bars in my area, etc.—and yet I haven’t been able to do any of it. It’s bizarre. Goodness knows people discovered all this information back in the days before the Web. They asked friends, they went to the library, they opened actual books and magazines. I know; I grew up in a time when people were actually excited over electric calculators and Pong. And yet I now I seem incapable of stirring even this much. (For a few days I was stymied by the simplest of questions: how do I go to the library when I don’t know where the library is?)

This problem was exacerbated when, shortly after I established my bank account, I bought a whole bunch of new furniture (there’s a whole Ikea story there) and discovered, upon checking with my bank, that because my multi-thousand-dollar check was out of state, and I was a new account, it would take up to a week to clear. So I couldn’t afford to eat out, didn’t know where to go in any event, and since I couldn’t contact agents or publishers, I didn’t have any clear objective in my writing either. This would have been a perfect time to goof around on my webiste, but of course—no internet. I spoke to the devil about this only a few days ago:

“I’ve got idle hands,” I said. “Can you help me? I feel so useless and I hate it. I just want to do something, even if it’s evil.”

The devil looked them over and shrugged. “Do you have any books or videotapes?”

“No,” I replied. “All that stuff is at the post office. They’re supposed to send them here some time over the next few days. Till then, I can’t really leave, because they might come by.”

“Can you call any friends?” he suggested. “Evil ones?”

“I only have seven numbers in my phone right now. I just lost my old phone and I haven’t been able to reassemble my list. Now if I had the internet . . .”

“Geez,” said the devil. “I’ll be honest. I’ve got nothing for you. Now, if you had more than a hundred dollars . . . “

“Not until Tuesday,” I said.

“What can I say? I hope you like sleeping.”

But now I’m no longer flatlining! And when I get my pecuniary defibrillation on Tuesday, I’ll be fully empowered to start a hectic career as a potential freelancer. (I’m giving myself a month before I hunt for a day job). But today’s Sunday, so I may as well just update my website.