We’re Not Worthy

April 24, 2010

Friday night started being cool once we were old enough for intramurals. Before that nothing was really official about Friday nights. If you were lucky, maybe Kev Brown was having a birthday party where his dad would take eight of us up to Sportstime USA and letting us run wild with an unlimited bank of quarters, playing games that could only be gangbanged properly by a group of nine-year-olds being fueled on pitchers of coke and pepperoni pizza. If three of us got involved at once, we could take down the record of the game where plastic alligators slid out of a tunnel and you had to smash their jaws shut before they reached far enough to the shore that they could chomp a bather and send the whole beach into hysteria. At first we were drawn in by this game that provided a fungo hammer as an accessory, inviting us to bonk at will. But we quickly discovered that in order to take the alligator game to the next level, two things needed to happen: 1) you had to ditch the hammer and pound the alligators’ mouths in with yr bare hands like a true croc hunter and 2) at least one buddy needed to be enlisted to split up watch over the five tunnels that the gators marched out of. Two hands were simply incapable of containing the reptilian blitzkrieg that went down once it was time for the lightning round. Of course you could guarantee lights out for the gators by gathering up five guys and assigning one tunnel to each man. But tracking down five boys in one spot after releasing them inside a recreation asylum the scope of Sportstime was no simple task.

But needless to say, record-breaking Fridays like that were few and far between. It wasn’t until fifth grade that we became eligible for St. Margaret’s intramural basketball and we could count on Friday nights equaling reliable, automatic fun with yr boys. Sorry Grandma, the last four years of TGIF have been a blast. But it’s time for me to party like a man now.

Now when fifth grade rolled around for the likes of Kev Brown, Marc Noriega, Mikey Westfield and me, St. Margaret’s decided to mix up the parameters for intramurals. Previously it had always been designated for boys in fifth through eighth grades, meaning that our intramural careers were about to start off with us getting our asses handed to us by the eight graders on Varsity who were chomping at the bit for a chance to try out all their goofball moves like reverse layups and crossover fadeaways that Coach Joe Woods would never even have allowed near warmups. But in 1991, the school decided to expand intramurals two third and fourth graders and create two leagues: one for sixth to eight grade and one for third through fifth. In other words, my boys and I were about to start off our intramural careers not as low men on the totem pole, but as JV studs who would technically own every offensive record in the league’s all-time history.

As icing on the cake, the older intramural league would be designated teams in the same way they always had, by taking on the identity of college basketball teams. That meant that the groundbreaking junior circuit would get broken up into teams that were named after pro squads. This was even cooler than it sounds. In fifth grade, we were sports nerds for NCAA basketball as much as anything else they gave ten minutes to on Sportscenter. Since New York never has any college basketball teams worth caring about, that meant that we were free to align ourselves with any collegiate powerhouse from Georgetown to Duke to badasses like UNLV. But when it came to intramurals, the team names weren’t chosen by us, but rather by dads who felt some sad need to use this opportunity to show loyalty to their flaccid alma maters. So you got stuck being a part of the intimidating squad from Iona or Manhattan College. Why not just have us sponsored by Apex Tech, you old dorks? With NBA teams, there was no such obstacle. So when Kev Brown and I got the call to be on the first-ever St. Margaret’s Intramural Lakers, you might as well have told me to pick up some protective goggles because I was going to be James Worthy to Kev’s Magic Johnson.

There was one strange move the dads who ran intramurals pulled that year that I’ll never understand. When most of us picked up our team shirts, we discovered them ironed on with random numbers that seemed completely unrelated to the ones we had requested on the sign-up sheet (inevitably #s 0, 00 or 99). But the guy on each team that everyone knew was going to steal the show that season, the guys that were already finding playing time on JV alongside the sixth graders who were now earning their dues on Seton Hall, those soon-to-be star players were each given the number 10. What the fuck was that? Did the dads think that some pampered third grader touching a basketball for the first time was going to mess up the inevitable pecking order that would take shape throughout the season? Did they think that the rest of us would be unaware of the fact that Kev, Marc, Brian O’Sullivan and Danny Roque had all been given the same number and instead think that there was some magical power in the number that we should learn to respect? Did they really want a secret captain that bad? Would getting a captain’s C on the sleeve of those guys’ tees have stirred the pot too much and pushed the league fee to eleven dollars per player? I’ve always wondered. If anything having the number 10 was just the final stamp those guys needed to justify the fact that they should be given the ball each time down we brought it down the court so that they could drive to the rim and shatter those non-existent records that would promptly need to be “broken.”

Was I jealous that being one of the five percent of the league who also played on JV wasn’t enough to land me a sarced 10? Sure. But thankfully fate made up for it by sticking me as the #2 man to my favorite of the fith grade ballhogs, my best friend Kev Brown. Kev was a ridiculous show boat. When he drove through the lane, he would stick his tongue out the same way Michael Jordan did. And how was he able to achieve such dominance? By abandoning his natual position as a small forward, bringing the ball up as a point guard, and pulling out the same play almost every time–the give and go with his wing man in every sense of the word…Billy “I’m not Worthy” Parker. I think at some point we labeled our season of intramural dominance as “Bill and Kev’s Excellent Advenutre.” Or maybe just I did.

Turning us into superstars for our inaugural intramural season colored the whole way in which we interacted with this newfound discovery of hanging out every week on Friday nights. If we were sweating from thirty-two minutes straight of fast break offense, why should we have to put on our Starter jackets in order to go out in the December weather for our walk down Riverdale Avenue to get slices at Starlight? Why should the no Jolt cola rule after dark apply to ballers like us? How could we tell if our Friday nights would end, let alone when they would? And most importantly, why did seeing movies have to stay relegated to Saturday afternoon matinees? If Home Alone was just released today nationwide, wasn’t it our right as Americans to go see it on its opening night? Since we had been scheduled for the early game that week, our parents would never even realize that we had left the gym. Playas play on.

From that point on, it always felt like *something* was supposed to happen on Friday nights. Intramurals became Youth Group became Regis Dances. Having chaperones around never felt limiting. You might be hanging in the same space that you had just occupied unwillingly all week, but something was very different. And it wasn’t just the uniforms.

I Just Wanna Change the Color of Yr Mood Ring

January 20, 2010

As far as my understanding goes, no man, woman or child who saw the film My Girl soon after its 1992 release was able to refrain from shedding a tear while watching the accidental death of our girl Vada’s best friend, Thomas J. Thus I took it in stride over ten years later when my longtime penpal Paterson revealed to me that he too had been similarly overwhelmed by emotion during the movie’s fateful scene. It seemed such a given to me that seeing My Girl meant crying with My Girl that I didn’t think twice when sharing Paterson’s admission with our friend Kaitlyn. The only problem was that Paterson had designs on Kaitlyn at the time. He would later inform me that passing along word of his Kleenex moment was not a “bro move.”

The rapper Ja Rule once sang, “When I cry, you cry, we cry…together.” That’s pretty much what I wanted to email Paterson back in the midst of this spat between us, two men in our mid-twenties. But even moreso it’s what I wanted to break through the screen and convey to Vada so that she didn’t feel so alone after losing her best friend and—dare I say—future potential love interest at such a young age. But back when I first met Vada, there was no Ja Rule. And so there were no words. So we just cried.

My Girl was one of those movies that I had to wait and see as a rental back in the seventh grade. It was always tricky roping the dudes you hung around to go see such sentimental tween fluff. Sometimes there was a movie like My Father the Hero that you could sneak past their sissy radar under the guise that you were all just going to check out how hot this Katherine Heigl chick really was. But none of the guys were buying that My Girl might be another chance to catch Macaulay Culkin riffing like the badass that made him an instant hero to us in Home Alone.

The seventh grade boys still weren’t even sure how they felt after being lured into The Good Son, where Macaulay plays a tween sociopath who wants to murder his family. That was some heavy shit. I loved it. Now Macaulay was gearing up for something even heavier—romance. The previews couldn’t hide what was going on here: the Motown that he’d be listening to, the cute glasses that he’d be wearing, the frolicking that he’d be taking part in. If I wanted a taste of that action, I was going to have to take the road less traveled.

So I stayed home (yes, alone) on a Friday night and choked up watching My Girl. Let’s be honest here. This wasn’t the worst set up in the world. There was a reason I enjoyed being by myself while watching it and it wasn’t because I was embarrassed to cry around other guys (trust me). The weekend My Father the Hero came out, I convinced the crew of nerdy dudes I was rolling with at the time to take a week off from street hockey (in sneakers, none of us really knew how to skate) and instead take a walk down to the Riverdale Twin and catch the Saturday matinee.

I had seen the previews for My Father the Hero, a movie about a mouthy teenage girl on vacation with her fool of a French dad. They couldn’t have been more aptly dubbed “coming attractions.” There was an attraction on its way all right, between me and the wisecracking heroine played by a fourteen-year-old Katherine Heigl. Getting to the theaters was the only way I could escalate it to a full-blown crush. Is this something that I wanted my dorky buddies around for? Hells no. But it was a sacrifice that I had to make. Why? Because I was too young to understand that occasionally it is considered socially acceptable to go to the movies by yourself.

With My Girl, there would have to be no such concessions. It was just me, Vada and Thomas J. on VHS. And yes, by the movie’s sad conclusion, I would end up quite moved. Have I mentioned already that I cried? Can I say it a few more times? The movie My Girl starring Anna Chlumsky and Macaulay Culkin brought me to tears. Every time I think of its title, I am overwhelmed by memories of this onslaught of grief that it stirred in me. But in the name of full disclosure, I must also admit that I was not immediately cast under a puppy dog-eyed spell by My Girl’s Vada. She just didn’t dazzle me the same way I was instantly drawn in by Katherine Heigl’s moxie-filled star turn in My Father.

Vada didn’t come across as my type. She was one of those girls who was really into her mood ring. It felt like she constantly talked about it. What color is the mood ring today? How is Vada dealing with her mom still being dead this morning? Maybe a walk down to the pond would brighten things up. Vada was so emotional. I wasn’t sure if things could ever work out between us. I felt like I was going to wind up the sensitive one in the relationship once the love of my life came along. That just wasn’t gonna happen if I fell for Vada and her color coordinated crying all the time.

Now this is where Thomas J. really saved us. It was not that I related so strongly with this spacey but sweet, spectacled boy who was saddled with a laundry list of serious allergies. I was a wiseass who wore my 20/15 vision on my sleeve.  What was more important than what the character of Thomas J. was like was who Thomas J. actually was. Thomas J. was Macaulay Culkin. And back in 1992, Macaulay Culkin was me.

Macaulay and I were born just a few days apart from each other. We both started out with bright blond hair. We had a fiercely cutting wit in our arsenal whenever needed it. We each had a dark side. After about the tenth time seeing Home Alone in 1991, I was inspired with an idea for my first novel. It was about the adventures of a twelve-year-old kid who one day wins the lottery. Yes, it was about me. But also, it was about Macaualay.

So when Thomas J. stepped too close to the beehive and met his maker on that sad day by the pond, who was going to step in and be there to comfort poor Vada? In that moment, it all became clear. Maybe there didn’t just have to be one sensitive side to the love of yr life. Maybe Kaitlyn eventually fell for Paterson because she knew they were both suckers for tearjerkers.

Are you there, Vada? It’s me, Billy Hot Chocolate. I just wanted to let you know: when I cry, you cry, we cry…together.

Route Teen

November 23, 2009

I took my first big date to dinner at Johnny Rockets. For dessert, we got Blizzards from Dairy Queen. I hadn’t planned either spot in advance, but the fact that the mall we had come to had both chain eateries felt like a pretty huge score. I was a freshman in college and had mapped out an evening where we would take two buses across the wide span of Los Angeles over to a mall in Redondo Beach. It was the only movie theater in southern California that was still playing The Rugrats Movie.

My high school gang back home in New York was very specific about the destinations we sought out. Once guys got their driver’s licenses, we started taking long trips to the luxuries that were denied to us growing up in the Bronx: Dairy Queen and Ben and Jerry’s. We paid a six-dollar toll to go across the George Washington Bridge to the DQ in Fort Lee, New Jersey and drove over forty-five minutes to get to a Ben and Jerry’s we had heard about all the way in Connecticut.

Even when the gang headed downtown on monthly excursions into the city, we tended to keep things pretty simple. We took the 1 train on an hour-long trip from the Bronx, always getting off at the Christopher Street Station. Once we got out, we made a direct run for the border of the West Village, straight to the Taco Bell on Sixth Avenue and Third Street. I rarely veered from my standard order, a Mexican Pizza.

If we really made a day of it, shopping along the identical Greenwich Village loop trekked across each time, we might stop for dinner at the Johnny Rockets that had just opened on Eighth Street above Washington Square Park. We liked the little jukeboxes and the milk shakes. The only other restaurant I remember seeing downtown was a placed called The Slaughtered Lamb that we walked by as we marched down Christopher Street to the Taco Bell. Each time we passed it, my friend Sean would yell, “Oh you got Greek food in there?…Well, you can KEEP IT IN THERE!” Sean had stomach problems, but that pretty much summed up how we all felt about ethnic cuisine.

When I came upon the Johnny Rockets at the Redondo mall, my date didn’t seem to mind eating there, nor did she frown upon my excitement at discovering it. Over dinner, she told me that she had once auditioned to be a singing waitress at the 50’s café that Johnny may have even modeled his Rocket after, The Stardust Diner in Times Square. She had also come out to college in Los Angeles after growing up in the outer boroughs of New York, so maybe she understood the novelty of having a suburban mall accessible by city transportation. She wasn’t exactly sure why we absolutely had to get our dessert at a second location while we were already eating at a restaurant that featured ice cream offerings as two of the five items listed on its main sign. But ultimately no one can resist getting swept away in a Blizzard.

A Man Without a Title

November 16, 2009

My friend Dominic would have been a great cop. Everyone we know has seen it in him for years. Dom was the go-to guy in college when it came to needing an actor in a student film once all of our friends studying to be moviemakers started making movies all the time. The first one he got cast in was the lead in a short film called “Hero in Panties.” Dom played one of those hard-boiled detectives—driving around LA in his unmarked Chevy, smoking cigarettes, checking in with the riff-raff who respected him, saying a little and standing there long enough to get folks to reveal a lot. He had the perfect presence for it. The kid was nineteen.

Nowadays Dom makes a living doing the interrogations where he gets people to divulge more than might be best for them. But his interviews didn’t wind up being the kind that are conducted in the back of a precinct house; they’re done on sets where people spill their guts in between contests to show that they’re the best amateur chef or fashion designer that nobody knows about. It’s too bad he doesn’t have the right to handcuff these people. Maybe then I’d start watching the shows.

There used to be a time when you were a kid and would play the game of Life—heck, you could be a winner at it—and it genuinely seemed realistic that when you grew up, most of yr friends would have ended up wearing one of the hats the game offered you—doctor, lawyer, cop, teacher…was priest in there? I hear Dom was a priest for Halloween. He kept telling people beforehand that he was going to be a sexy priest. And because the rest of the world is bad at jokes, people assumed that meant that he was going to have giant tits or something. But then Dom would explain that he just meant he was going to wear a nice sweater and maybe smoke cigarettes. He assumed they knew that the sexy part was just going to be a given if he played it close to home.

I suppose Dom could have been a good priest as well, if we still lived in an era where the guys on the altar had a real whiff of sex on them. Nowadays you go to church and the priests are all old dudes who have been around forever and an immigrant they convinced to unlock the doors and say the 7:30 in exchange for a scholarship at St. John’s. I flip through my mom’s photo albums of her parish in the seventies and there were some real heartthrobs. You tag on a name like “Father Ciccodicola” and forget about it. The line for confession would have gone all the way up to the funeral home.

One of my favorite books is called “True Confessions” by John Gregory Dunne. I’ve been trying to get Dom to read it for years. The story is about these two brothers, Tom and Des Spellacy, who live in Los Angeles. One of them is a priest, who serves as the right hand man for the Archbishop of LA. The other is a bit of a rogue cop who’s a thorn in the side of the LAPD police chief. The cop drinks on the job a little bit and is having an affair with a pretty blond he bailed out of a domestic dispute call one night. But you can tell that his brother is cut from the same cloth, that it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine either of them ending up with the other’s life instead. I always thought Dom would like it cause it’s the best book I’ve read about Catholics in LA. But maybe I also read it and thought: these guys could have been us.

My Uncle Jack was an NYPD detective for twenty years. He’s the kind of guy who knows everybody and always has a spot around town. When I wanted to start getting my own haircuts as a teenager, Uncle Jack set me up with Nick, his go-to guy for years. Nick lived in New Jersey, but owned a barbershop in the West Village. Uncle Jack had been retired from the force at this point, but would come into the city from his house in Long Beach just to be there when I sat in Nick’s chair. When I started going there at fourteen, I was sort of in awe of the fact that I was getting my haircut from a guy who had just been on “The Jon Stewart Show,” giving the wacky sidekick a trendy new cut involving a flame.

More mesmerizing than that was watching the way that Nick and Uncle Jack would network with each other. When Nick wanted to take his wife to see a taping of Saturday Night Live, Uncle Jack was able to hook that up for him, no problem. And when Uncle Jack mentioned that he had wanted to take Aunt Liz to see the insanely sold out new production of “The Producers,” Nick was able to call in some favors to get tickets for them. These sorts of exchanges weren’t exactly new to me—I had been watching old guys conduct business like that around Riverdale since I was a little kid. But there was something all the more impressive about watching these two come into the coolest neighborhood in Manhattan from their suburban homes and play the game on that much bigger of a scale. I have no idea how Uncle Jack and Nick hooked up, but I’m certain that it didn’t take long to see in each other that they used their hats as barber and ex-cop to take on the more important role of “people who knew people.”

Dom got cast as a cop as much for his presence as he did simply for being a guy who everyone knew on campus. He didn’t draw attention to himself in any high profile sort of way. You’d know him as the guy with the broken arm who worked at the Jamba Juice inside Café ’84 or the guy someone pointed out as the one quoted in the Daily Trojan as a witness to the armed robbery that went down in the campus coffee shop, Common Grounds. You’d sit with him at one of his favorite spots, inside the EVK cafeteria, and it seemed like no matter who came over to the table, they already knew Dom, and no two from the same place. This was only four months into school, when everyone was still meeting. But Dom was the one with a car, the one who knew where the nearest bowling alley was and also the one that someone sought out when they were thinking about coming out of the closet and didn’t know who else to talk to. He was a pillar of the community before the community had really taken on its shape.

Maybe Dom is of an era where a man doesn’t have to wear a uniform to forge an identity within a city. Maybe sticking a badge on him or slapping on a priest’s collar would be too limiting for the way he likes to lead his life. But I wonder how people will know that this is a guy they can turn to when they need something. It’s very easy for Dom to blend in sometimes and I worry that people who could use someone won’t know where to find him. Still, he seems to find a way to bridge the gaps. Nothing would shock me about playing Life with my kids someday and watching them land on a space that earns them a life of being an Uncle Dom.

Emotional Cartography

July 15, 2009

My buddy Derek and I used to have a guarded relationship when we were first getting to know each other. Derek knew that he liked me, but he was also trying hard to “figure me out.” It didn’t help that when I moved up to his hometown, knowing next to nobody, and accepted his invitation to be his friend, that I was basically the equivalent of an emotional leper. I was going through one of those periods that you later look back at and realize that you were totally “off the map.” 

Where do you go?

Early on into our friendship, Derek would say things to me like, “I heard that you were moving up here and I didn’t really believe it. I have no idea why someone would wanna come live up here when they could just as easily be in New York or LA. Why are you here again?” And I would respond, “To become friends with you.”

But I had little to offer this friendship when I arrived. The only baggage I came into town with was the emotionally abusive relationship that I had decided should live here, in this town where no one would really know us. Maybe Derek could take this off my hands. He actually ended up doing just that. Years ago I realized that almost everything I say as a joke—sarcastically, ironically, whatever—is actually just as valid if taken in earnest, often moreso. When Derek and I were suddenly neighbors on our way to becoming friends, I basically said to him, “Take my wife here…No really, take her.” But no one was laughing and he actually did.

This might sound crazy, but I came to Portland to fail. I felt myself bursting at the seams and I refused to explode around the people who cared about me the most. The city should really start marketing itself this way. “Portland: The rain falls so easily up here, so why not you too?” It wasn’t a bad plan either. Most people didn’t know who I was nor did they seem to take notice of the ways in which I was wrecking my life. But that didn’t include Derek for some reason.

Derek’s an incredibly perceptive guy so I wonder if he could sense that something was wrong. I assume that he could. When most people detect that sense, they generally avoid the situation. I’m sure most of them don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing. You see the guy with the beard screaming to himself and you instinctively walk to the other side of the street with your purse held a little tighter. But Derek decided to be the guy that goes up to that bum and tells him that he likes his style, even if he’s taking the risk of getting clipped a couple times when the guy starts swinging wildly for no good reason.

The first night Derek went out of his way to hang out with me and my girlfriend, he took us to a party. I ended up insulting some friend of his by continually dubbing him “Awkward Guy” because the dude was in fact painfully awkward in how he interacted with almost everyone there. Sadly he was not “Oblivious Guy” and was well aware of the embarrassing social hang-ups he had and that I was choosing to publicly highlight. Then I pissed off the people whose house it was by peeing on the side of their place. Soon after getting to know me, Derek would have to have these talks with me, nicks on his chin still showing, where he’d say something to the effect of, “Hey man, the way you acted last night was really not cool.” And all I could say was, “You’re right.”

One of the biggest themes in Derek’s life is this ongoing fear that by sticking around his hometown, he’s created an obstacle for himself that doesn’t allow him to succeed in ways which he would like to, that Portland might be holding him back. But the biggest thing that keeps him around is having a girlfriend who lives there with him. That’s where their life is. Maybe it seems like going somewhere else would mean having a different life. I’m pretty sure that’s how I felt when I moved up near them.

A couple of months after being around each other in Portland, Derek and I went out for coffee one afternoon. It seems like something that would have happened a lot sooner in an area known for its coffee culture, but at the end of a day it really is a drinking town. Maybe they all are. But now he was getting serious. He said to me, “You know, I might talk a lot of shit, but at the end of the day, I really love my girlfriend and have no doubt in my mind that I’m gonna marry her.” He asked me if I felt the same way, assuming that I did. I told him that I didn’t. Now he seemed really stumped. Here he was, stuck in a place he often felt like he didn’t want to be, but grounded there by the girl he knew he wanted to be with. And now I tell him that I’ve brought a girl to that very same place—a place where I equally would rather not be stuck in—because I don’t wanna be with her. Off the map.

“Ya know, I think I finally figured out what your deal is,” he concluded that afternoon with. “You’re a guy who’s just all about being into his friends.”

Local Eyes In

July 6, 2009

In case you didn’t know, July is National Ice Cream Month. Don’t worry if you didn’t know. There’s still plenty of time to use it as an excuse to make a gluttonous pig of yourself. In my own personal quest to prove myself as “the guy most into ice cream of anyone you know,” I’ve been hitting a different spot on each day thus far.

In making sure that everybody is aware of my reputation, I’ve also been forcing the unnatural phrase “Happy National Ice Cream Month” into almost every conversation I have. It may sound clunky, but trust me—it goes places. Just yesterday while debuting it to my friend Pete Baker, an old buddy I grew up with in The Bronx, he got all excited. Because like everyone else I’ve told, Pete had no idea of the designation.

It turned out that Pete had just celebrated without even realizing it (because it’s summer and that’s what people do). He had been hanging out in a particularly touristy part of the city and got the urge for a milkshake upon spotting one of the many trucks that liberally use the Mister Softee model for their own rip-off version. No one cares about this of course because no one ever attributed any high degree of quality to Mister Softee in the first place. We all turn a blind eye to copyright infringement in in the name of finding the quickest way to recognize “ice cream on wheels.”

So Pete goes up to the fake Softee and asks how much a milkshake is. The guy in the truck says, “Seven dollars.” Outraged at this, Pete shoots back, “Well how much is it for locals?” The guy, sensing that Pete has been around the block (and unlock the rest of his customers, even further than that) senses that the only way he’ll make a sale is if he says, “All right, I’ll give it to you five. But don’t let anybody see what you’re paying me.”

Tales of a Sixth Grade Something

March 4, 2009

“Losing My Religion” was the song playing on the radio when Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay went through their first epic breakup on Beverly Hills, 90210. Brenda fought back tears as she sat in the passenger seat of Dylan’s convertible, parked on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. And I did the same, alone in my bedroom in a night shirt and boxer shorts, wondering why my favorite song at eleven-years-old had to signal the end of something so magical. Oh no, I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.

As fifth grade at St. Margaret’s ended, the seventh and eight graders you were friends with—the Bobby Bailes and Kristine Browns—let you in on a little secret: sixth grade was going to be the best year ever. There was no clear reason why it was going to be so special—the girls would still be contained by jumpers and access to youth group dances was denied to us for another year until seventh. But they swore that you’d have to trust them: sixth grade was when it all happened.

Not long after New Year’s in the midst of “the big year,” I took my fist stab at having my own journal. It was triggered by a weekend that felt both monumental and yet totally ordinary. That Saturday, I had cried twice: once when my newfound favorite football team, the Atlantic Falcons, had been eliminated from the playoffs and once when Zack and Kelly had broken up on that morning’s Saved by the Bell. Kelly sobbed as she asked, “Can we still be friends?” Zack somehow held it together as he responded, “Forever.” Slater and Jessie terribly lip synched in the background. And as I watched in that same bedroom, I lost my shit. I wasn’t even 11 1/2 and here my heart was being broken left and right.

That weekend was one of the first times I remember feeling unsure just what to do with myself. It was the annual St. Margaret’s Holiday Invitational Basketball Tournament up at the gym, a major event on the social calendar. But that Saturday, face full of tears and it barely noon, I couldn’t bring myself to go. As of a month before, I had been expecting to play in the tournament with the rest of the St. Margaret’s Junior Varsity squad—well if not play, at least warm the bench and clown around for a packed gymnasium during time outs and halftime. But that was no longer an option since Coach Hanley had kicked me off the team for goofing around too much.

Did he kick me off or did I quit? I’m still not sure. All I know is that I got kicked out of practice one day for showing up in roller blades and then throwing a behind-the-back pass to Robbie Abdelaziz during drills. I was too shaken and guilty to go straight home, so I waited for the guys to finish up practice over at Evelyn’s, the bodega across the street from school. When practice got out, Kev Brown and some of the other guys came over and told me that it sounded like Hanley wanted me off the team. After feeling stuck in a state of limbo and unsure what to do about it, eventually a few days later Kev Farrell came and talked to me. His brother Brendan was the assistant coach of the team (and no fan of my antics). I told Kev that I wasn’t sure if I was still on the team or not. He said that the coaches had heard from the other guys that I had wanted to quit (stupid Telephone game). So I told Kev that I guess I should give him my uniforms to pass along. Breakups and job endings have always seemed to follow this route ever since. “You can’t fire me cause I quit.” “Oh, it was a mutual breakup. I’m just not sure who gave up on who first.”

So by Sunday of the tournament weekend, I was too antsy about feeling like the odd man out and decided to face the embarrassment of showing up at the gym. I don’t think that I stayed very long. I mostly remember staying close to the baked goods table in the back where Mrs. Downey was selling brownies. That seemed like a good combo for feeling safe. The only member of the JV who crossed paths with me was Dave Hannon, a fifth grader who neither really liked me nor hated me. Thus he probably didn’t care enough to think that it was weird that I would show up to watch the team that I didn’t want to be a part of.

The only reason I remember a figure as neutral as Dave there is because I know that I mentioned it in that first journal entry. The only other line I remember was a play on words off a 3rd Bass song: “It’s ’92, Jew. So something’s gotta change.” That may have been what was so special about sixth grade for me. It was the first time that I started feeling like all this wasn’t enough.

After my first breakup, right around that same era, I found myself in front of St. Margaret’s, sitting against a wall alongside Petey Donoghue. The other young couples of the time were doing their thing on the nearby steps. The only song that seemed to fit the moment was Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” incidentally the epic breakup song from Pretty Woman. Petey sang it with me, making it more funny than sad. And yet it also felt pretty forced. What made the endings of those teenage television romances so hard to take was not just letting go of these couples that I had invested so much of myself into. It was knowing how badly I wanted the chance to have my own heart so tremendously crushed.

Wishing Upon a Darren Starr

December 8, 2008

Some would keep saying I’m insane to complain about a shotgun wedding and a stain on my shirt.”-Beck, in the song “Loser”

Today seemed like a perfectly complacent morning. When I woke up, I thought that the clock said 7:00 which just did not make any sense. I was up working until two and was due to catch up on some sleep. But then when I adjusted my view, it turned out that it was actually just before ten and I had hit that magical eight hour of sleep mark, just like the health reporters want. 

The first stop was the bathroom because, ya know, I had to pee and all. And this presented me with an immediate dilemma: subject myself to the harsh bathroom light after being cooped up in my lightless cave of a room all night, pee with the light off and the door shut only to later deal with the consequences of how inaccurate my trail would inevitably be or leave the door open and pee with the slight anxiety that one of my roommates would wander toward the bathroom and be unhappy with the free peep show. Naturally the third option seemed best. It seems better to lean back on my exhibitionism than my carelessness. And I’ve been patient enough with my fellow dwellers’ “If it’s yellow, keep it mellow” attitude to feel that I have deserved the right to pee like a shameless Dad. 

Next up was a walk to the kitchen where I just stood with my head leaned against the one (yes, one) shared window in this four-bedroom apartment, the single-paned one that leads to the fire escape. I imagine that if there were no fire code, our landlord would have already divided the apartment up in such a way that it might not even have this. It’s a funny feeling to start wondering how close your living conditions are to the work environment of a Triangle Shirt Factory employee a hundred years before. 

Standing with my face pressed against the cold glass of the window glancing toward whatever hidden sun could be found makes me feel like I have a tropism. Tropism: I don’t know if that’s one of my favorite words or ideas. When we find something healthy, we’ll naturally start gravitating toward it. It probably doesn’t say much for my faith in free will. But you gotta admit that pre-serpent garden does sound pretty rich, if not a little dull. 

Well the only fruit tree that had much appeal in my garden this morning was the last quarter of my carton of Edy’s chocolate ice cream. Being that it was getting toward the bottom, I really couldn’t find any justification to defeat my overwhelming desire to (always. always) eat directly from the carton. So after letting it soften up for about five minutes, I did. And almost immediately, some of the half-melted ice cream that had found its way smeared down the side of the carton’s exterior rubbed up against my t-shirt—one of my favorites—my mint chocolate chip shirt (aka my beaver shirt). Suddenly I realized, “This is why you don’t eat out of the carton.” Another life lesson learned, twenty-eight years in. 

Last night I sat on the recliner in our living room, trying to make sense of a relatively dull story I was working on about the hoops that local and state government will have to jump through if they want to implement new tolls on bridges into Manhattan in order to fix their depleted budget. Being a late Sunday night, there was little on the basic channels we have to keep me company and I found myself watching Sex and the City. Carrie had been debating if she could really feel satisfied staying in a relationship with Mr. Big when she knew that he had no intention of marrying her. It had been a building tension in her ever since she went to a friend’s wedding recently. Much like me, she’s been tap-tap-tapping on the keys here at the old laptop trying to sort through her feelings about it. And finally it comes to a head and she confronts Big about it while they’re having a low-key date in his kitchen. She brings up it up right as he’s taking a wooden stirring spoon out of a pot of sauce and having her taste it. People on television are always tasting each other’s sauce. But they never show you how they get there. I’m assuming that it doesn’t involve for Four Cheese flavored jar of Classico that’s sitting dormant in the pantry to my right. 

There’s one genuine period of my twenties when I attempted to nest. After Erin and I broke up, I landed myself a studio in downtown Portland in a building centered around a courtyard, a sort of hipster Melrose Place. I was really happy with the furniture I had picked out for it—even received one of my first real housewarming gifts in the form of a pink and purple polka dotted shower curtain from my friend I worked with at the group home, Kate Needham. Oftentimes one of the highlights of my week was my frequent stops at Rite Aid, where I’d find myself spending thirty or forty dollars on everything from Swiffer wipes to my first wash cloth the Crest mouthwash I had been meaning to buy since reading an article about it on an airplane a year prior. 

What seemed like it could really balance the whole equation was if I could figure out a way to confidently start cooking for myself. I’ve probably prepared less than five percent of my own meals over the last ten years and those have primarily centered around peanut butter, frozen garden burgers and the occasional can of refried beans. I started to imagine what my life could be like if I just had my own soup—just one kind of soup—that I could prepare from scratch. The only solution I could come up with was an adult cooking class on the basics. And not for a lack of trying to track one down, but they apparently did not exist in the Pacific Northwest. Do they anywhere? So my staple meal for the six months I lived in that studio was the Happy Hour wonton nachos with beans from the Shanghai Tunnel and/or the one-dollar bowl of peppered edamame from XV, two of the three bars that lay directly below my floor. There were no dates with Carrie Bradshaw and thus there were no sauce-tasting moments. 

While there’s still no soup from scratch, I do have a tea I can call my own. It’s called “The Emperor’s White Tea” from a brand called “The Republic of Tea” and it costs around twelve dollars a canister. I first discovered it during the two weeks I lived in Jersey City with Erin a few Christmases ago. She wanted me to move in to her wonderful steal of a loft apartment that had all the charm of the my hipster Melrose Place pad two years later. I used to tease her that if we ever moved back to New York, it would have to be to Greenpoint where there seemed to be more excitement outside your door to bounce off of. 

Even during those two weeks, she was more inclined to have us cozy up in the loft, drink some white tea and even much to her chagrin put up with my insistence that she give reggae music a try (even though I secretly hated it just as much as her). But I was much more gung-ho to go out around the city, get tanked with the old comedy gang and find myself peeing in some guy’s winter hat I stole  just because he was being an insistent douchebag about forcing flyers for his band’s show on our table. I rejected the cozy Jersey City life and then I rejected the quaint downtown Portland life and now I clutch onto the white tea in order to escape the Triangle Fire of a life in Greenpoint I discovered instead. There’s plenty of excitement outside the door, but inside it’s all a mess.

Reading Rebel

December 2, 2008

I had very few goals when I got to college, but one of them was to be a part of the campus radio station. For Christmas a few years prior, two of my five cousins both unknowingly gave me books on Nirvana. Being fifteen, that provoked a silent reaction of “Wow guys, thanks for really getting me.” One of the books was just about Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, doing an analysis of every Nirvana song that had been put out. It was one of those glossy covers you spot cause of the weird font on the title is in that basically reads like the proposal that made a publisher green light it. Now that there’s the internet, any of us really could have written this book since it mostly was just the work of a guy who took the time to sift through years of interviews with the band and just sorted which quotes had to do with which songs. To be honest, that may even be giving the author too much credit. A lot of the book’s material may have come directly from the Michael Azzerod biography “Come As You Are” (which is totally legit.)  Not that I’m talking shit—the way that the lyrics books was written is actually not that far from what I do for a living now.

The second book, from my cousin Kirk, seemed like it was going to be a lot cheesier. It was called Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana by Gina Arnold. Route 666, yeah cause we’re all a bunch of devil worshipers who get depressed thinking of Kurt and fight back by getting into Marilyn Manson, right? Its title reminded me a lot of the book my Mom used to leave around the apartment a lot during my adolescence, Why Good Parents Raise Bad Children (sometimes stacked above Smart Women, Foolish Choices). But right after Christmas, my Mom and I were visiting my grandfather in Georgia and being that I turned out the lyrics book in about an hour and a half, I figured I might as well give this ooga booga Route 666 a try since I had nothing better to do.

Well the book’s not really about Nirvana at all. If the lyrics book just rode the coat tails of Nirvana’s post-mortem aura in order to get a book published–any book published, then Gina Arnold used it to get her book published. Being a teenager in 1995, the idea of “punk” was being sold to me pretty ruthlessly. Green Day and the Offspring were being hailed by magazine covers as the return of “punk rock” and had just sold about 13 million records combined. The way the story was told, these bands were a return to the last time the media had made a fuss about punk rock twenty years before when The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones were making a name for themselves. But something about that scene felt corny to me in a hurry and after seeing Green Day at my first concert (fourteen years ago today actually,) I quickly jumped ship.  Now Nirvana would occasionally be referred to as “punk” as well—specifically in this tour documentary of them, Sonic Youth and a bunch of other bands I listened to called 1991: The Year Punk Broke, but I didn’t seem to understand the connection between the two punks. I knew I had been just a kid and all, but what the hell happened in the eighties? Gina Arnold filled in the gaps.

She did it as a fly in the wall. The book was not some exploration of “the underground rock movement” by someone who became fascinated in finding out where grunge came from. This was the tale of the girl who had bands sleep on her floor when they came thru town throughout the decade, who sat in the college station in Olympia and watched the Sub Pop guys do their weekly show and who sat across from the apple of her eye, The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and played hangman with him (making him guess the title of his opus, “Unsatisfied”.) And aside from flipping back to the title page and writing down the name of just about every band Gina mentioned (with an understood “note to self: get into all of this”), the biggest thing I took away from Route 66 was that this was definitely the sort of life I wanted to live. Someday I wanted to be a small part of something that might never be a big deal to begin with.

So when I got to college, one of my first orders of business was to seek out the radio station. Just that summer KSCR had gone from sending out its signal on 104.7 throughout campus all the way into downtown LA to getting kicked off the air and becoming an internet only station (which in 1998 pretty much guaranteed it next to no listeners). The show I got assigned to intern at was on Friday afternoons from two to four. The first hour was run by this dude named Keenan who would always wear a fitted baseball cap backwards, play some poppy punk and goof around with Jed and some of his other buddies who would come down to the station. The second hour, this girl Kara would take over the controls. She would often seem bummed out, the way that teenage girls are depressed in sitcoms. One week a news Belle and Sebastien album came out (The Boy With the Arab Strap?) and she spent her hour just letting the whole album play. And we all just sat there in silence, listening to this exercise in melancholy, as no one else did.

And yet that was about the best thing I had going for me at the time.

Consumption

December 1, 2008

Tomato soup never gave up on me. Once every couple of years growing up, the idea would get stuck in my head, “Boy would some tomato soup be delicious right now,” (except that I never really spoke in that tone, inner monologue or not.) But I would be eating at my Grandma’s, like I did more days than not, and the urge would come over me to ask her if I could have some tomato soup with dinner. I would imagine how delicious the warm orange coating would be going down my throat. I’d picture the line of identical Andy Warhol Campbell’s cans in the grocery store and decide that it only made sense that one of them was a good match for me, since there weren’t any other kinds of soup I’d request. And I’d wonder, “How have I gone without tomato soup for so long?” Asking my Grandma for it didn’t just seem like a move toward instant gratification, it felt like the first step on a journey: my new life with tomato soup.

 

By the time I ate it though—wait, do you eat soup or drink it? This kind of thing drives me crazy. I feel like I eat something if I use a utensil the whole time I consume it. But once I pick it up and slurp it, it’s officially drinking. Like after I eat my cereal, I drink the leftover milk from the bowl. I’m trying to make this grand orchestration of a point about how I convinced myself time and again that I wanted tomato soup, only to realize that I had no particular taste for it whatsoever. And yet all my brain can think about is whether or not soup gets eaten or drunk. I suppose that’s fitting. We become so convinced and focused on what we’re certain that we want that we become distracted from things that start to genuinely matter to us.

 

But that’s just how it is. I spend two nights in a row watching DVDs of TV shows I rented and I begin to wonder if it’s time to go back to school and get my Masters, studying television—and really sinking my teeth into it, not half-assing it this time. I once made a pledge to myself that I would stop talking about ideas that I had of things that I hadn’t yet done. I could only talk about what I’ve accomplished. But that’s just another idea that sounds better than it works out. When I was getting ready to take my train trip this summer, it was thrilling to have something to talk about with just about anyone I encountered. People were always eager to plot out with me what route I was thinking of taking, what sorts of places I would stay in, and how I’d spend my time on the train. Everyone loves the sense of possibility. In a way, people almost feel like maybe they are gonna take that trip with me. They start co-navigating as if they need to think about what they’ll wanna get up to in Madison while I’m off lingering outside Lorrie Moore’s door. And you know what, maybe they will join me. There’s nothing saying they absolutely can’t.

 

But after you slurp that bowl of tomato soup, that’s it. ‘So how was it?’ Oh, not as good as I expected. It was kind of plain actually. I don’t even think I finished it all. So honestly, I’m not sure whether I’m an official tomato soup slurper or not.

 

‘But it’s definitely ‘slurp’?’

 

‘Yeah, I think I’m pretty stuck on slurp.’

 

‘Well at least we have that.’