I can tell when a coworker has returned from an international trip by the treats left in the office kitchen. French macarons, or a plate of Baklava squares—the real thing, straight from the Parthenon. This means the mission was successful, and here is a token of the conquest. Like a severed head, only more civilized.
Often the treat comes with a note, something cheerful and inviting. “A slice of heaven from God’s country!” read one, folded next to a hubcap-shaped loaf of Irish soda bread. A wedge had already been cut out, giving me a clear view of its cross-section. The interior looked dry and coarse and reminded me of hardship. There were raisins spotted throughout, like ants petrified in tree sap. I sawed off a piece and took a bite, then walked over to the trashcan. “Heaven needs some enriched flour,” I said, spitting out the food, along with one of my crowns.
“Eileen brought that all the way from Dublin,” someone said. “Have some respect.”
“How is that disrespectful? It’s not like she baked it herself.”
One of our designers, Kyoko, returned from Japan with a bag of individually packaged candy. She displayed them in neat rows on the kitchen table, as if they were for sale. From a distance they looked familiar: bright colors, metallic wrappers, wacky logos. But upon closer inspection they appeared counterfeit. I picked up a Kit-Kat bar—the one friendly face—and then returned it once I discovered it was not chocolate, but green tea. Instead of a rich and creamy brown it was the color of pea soup and freckled with tiny liver spots. It was like seeing an old friend down the street, then rushing to him only to discover he’s been infected with a virus. What have they done to you? was all I could think.
“This is…interesting,” said one coworker as she chewed on a seaweed-flavored jellybean. This while I nibbled cautiously on a Dars bar—unsweetened cocoa mixed with ginger and wasabi.
Even sweets from the United Kingdom taste peculiar, too natural, or too sophisticated maybe. I’d always viewed the Brits as sugar experts, given the quality of their teeth. Up until high school I thought Willy Wonka was a real person. As such, I was shocked after biting into a “Jammie Dodger”, which looks like a Tollhouse cookie but is actually vegan shortbread with apple jam. It’s not that it was bad, but after the thrill of opening a flashy wrapper I expected something soft and fortified with chemicals. What I didn’t expect was unleavened bread topped with jelly. I checked the ingredients and discovered that nothing artificial was added, except for the letter U to the words “flavor” and “color”. That’s the problem right there. This candy is too hifalutin for my palate.
“You need some culture in your life,” a coworker told me as I spit an Earl Grey-flavored wafer into the trash.
I rinsed my mouth under the faucet and dried my face on my shirt. “What for?” I said.
“Because…” she said, the answer so obvious that all she could do was wave her hand around. “Because culture is good.”
I am told regularly that I need to get cultured—so often that the expression has lost its meaning. This time I was curious, so I sat down at the table across from my coworker. “Tell me…why is it good?” I said, crossing my legs, now making an effort to appear civilized.
She opened a Yorkie bar and took a bite. The wrapper looked like an American candy bar called a 5th Avenue, which is chocolate and peanut butter. The Yorkie, on the other hand, was biscuits and raisin. “That’s like asking why exercise is good,” she said.
“Exercise helps you get strong and live a healthy life.” I picked up a pack of Twisty Bits and examined it. “Is that was culture does?”
“It helps you live a fuller life,” the coworker suggested. “It broadens your view of things. Do I really need to explain the benefits of culture? What about education? Are you still undecided on that one?”
My problem with culture is that often people use it as an asset. They spend too much time proving they have it, and this defeats the purpose. Culture, by definition, is meant to enlighten, yet for some the line between enlightenment and status is blurry. Will a trip to Southeast Asia expand my worldview and help me appreciate a different way of life? Probably. Will it give me perspective on my own circumstances? It might. But in my experience the most reliable curriculum is pain, humility, and loss.
* * *
Amanda and I recently went on a double date with another couple, Amy and Todd, friends of hers from a previous job. “They’re really into the finer things,” Amanda said on our way to the restaurant. I’d never heard that said about someone before. It sounded like a warning, so I shrugged and thought of conversation starters that would make Amanda and I appear like bumpkins. It wouldn’t take much. Mention the Die Hard movies and hair metal as often as possible, I thought. These are my go-tos whenever I want to embarrass myself.
We met them outside the restaurant, a place called No. 9 Park. It was chosen, as Amy put it, “for the sake of nostalgia”.
I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Did you come here when you were a kid?” I said.
“No,” she said with a chuckle. “This was Barbara Lynch’s first restaurant. We thought coming here would be kind of nostalgic, a trip down memory lane.”
I asked if her and Todd had their first date here. Amy said no, they’d only been here once, a couple years ago. “Had the place just opened?” I asked. Again Amy said no and explained that it was nostalgic because Ms. Lynch, the owner, now presided over a culinary empire, and this was where it all began.
Everyone seemed annoyed that I was pressing such an insignificant detail, so I dropped it. Still, I was confused. Don’t you have to be personally involved to experience nostalgia? For me nostalgia is sitting on my living room floor watching Three’s Company on CBS, or driving past the Waltham Commons, where I got high every day for five years. You can’t appreciate someone else’s fondness for the past. I mean, you can, but it’s not genuine. If Jay Leno and I walked into one of his old comedy clubs, only one of us would feel truly nostalgic, and it wouldn’t be me.
Our table “wasn’t the worst, but certainly not the best,” according to Todd. He seemed angry because of this, while I was still mesmerized by the clever fold of the linens and the two different forks included in my place setting, both gleaming silver.
“At least this table doesn’t rock back and forth,” I said. “Now that’s the worst.”
The server came and asked us if we’d like to start with a cocktail. Todd asked for something the server had never heard of, and then followed up by listing the ingredients: seltzer water, Belvedere, a lemon rind and a splash of bitters—basically a vodka soda with a couple pointless additions. “Have the bartender stir it in a martini shaker, please,” he said. Amy looked over the aperitif menu. She nodded in approval, then asked for a Fabiola. Amanda ordered a glass of the house red, and I said I’d have a coke when the food came out.
Todd asked why I wasn’t drinking. Technically he didn’t ask; he just made the observation and added a question mark at the end. “I’m in AA,” I replied. Usually I say, “I don’t drink” or “not tonight” and leave the rest to the imagination, but I wanted to make the evening as uncomfortable as possible.
“That sucks,” Todd said, shaking his head.
This was the first time someone said my sobriety “sucked”. It was a nice change of pace, since people typically offer some sort of encouragement or congratulations.
Todd continued: “I couldn’t live without alcohol.”
“Alcohol wasn’t really my problem,” I said. “It was painkillers. Percocet, Vicodin, OxyContin…man, I loved them so much.” I held the menu to my face, and then peered over the top. “I used to snort them,” I added, just for good measure.
“Oh,” Amy said, raising her eyebrows.
Without consulting with us, Todd ordered appetizers for the table: Oysters, foie gras, and something else I didn’t want. Before committing to each dish he asked where the food was born. The duck was from the Hudson Valley. The oysters were from Duxbury, Massachusetts. The walnuts: a small town just north of Santa Barbara. Did he really need to do a background check on the ingredients? We’re going to eat the stuff, not elect it into office.
For the next forty-five minutes the conversation centered on international cuisine. It was non-stop. Todd did the talking while Amanda and I nodded along, pretending to care. My eyes watered from boredom. “No kidding,” I said, at least forty times. The more he spoke the sadder I got—not about me, but about humanity in general. Amy interjected once in a while, but mostly it was Todd, describing some of the more divine meals he’s had all over the world. “That was real bolognese. Not like this,” he said, pointing his fork down at his plate. “This is American bolognese.”
American Bolognese. That’s a great title for something, I thought. Maybe a one-act play about a zany Italian family from Queens.
Todd held a forkful of pasta up to Amy’s mouth. “Try this,” he said. “Is that parsnip? It’s subtle, but it’s there, right? Interesting. I’m not sure I would have done that.”
Amanda asked Todd if he cooked. Here we go, I thought.
As a matter of fact, Todd did cook. He considered himself “something of a novice”, an expression I’ve only heard movie characters use, just before they land a 747 or shoot a clay pigeon from an impossible distance. His specialty was a Middle Eastern lamb tartare, and making it involved a trip to a Turkish dry goods store as well as a butcher shop that was four towns over. “All we have in our neighborhood is a Market Basket, and, well, it’s Market Basket.” He laughed at this.
Market Basket, as it happens, is one of my favorite places in the world. I love how clean and orderly it is. I love the retro smocks the employees wear. The supermarket has everything imaginable, from paperbacks to fresh lobster, and when you get to the register it’s like you’re at an A&P in the fifties.
When I mentioned that, Todd looked to Amy and winced. Then he looked back at me. “I’m trying to make the best dish possible,” he said. “I don’t really care how people are dressed.”
I couldn’t believe what a humorless asshole this guy was. How could Amanda call these people friends? I pondered this while Todd dove into step-by-step instructions on his signature dish. “You start the night before with the yogurt,” he said, at which point I tuned out.
Amy didn’t say much the entire night. She acted like a prisoner, always deferring to Todd or asking him leading questions. “For that you use a special cheese cloth, right?” “Peru was incredible…wouldn’t you agree?” I pictured the two of them watching TV while Todd criticized the sound design or commented on how the leisure class never drank from a highball glass. This while Amy complimented him on his insight. Was she always like this? I wondered. Or was she slowly infected by Todd’s culture, like the Japanese Kit-Kat? Sad, to think she used to be creamy chocolate, and now, after five years with Todd, she was green tea.
Against my better judgment I agreed to dessert. “Whatever you want. You choose.” I checked the time. We’d been in the restaurant for over two hours. The dining room had turned over twice since we arrived. When the dessert came, Todd asked us his first question of the evening.
“Do you two have any plans this summer?”
We did, but we were too tired to think, so I shook my head and said, “not really”.
Todd sat back in his chair, satisfied.
We split the check down the middle, which wasn’t exactly fair given they had six cocktails and we had one. Afterward they asked us to join them for a drink at the bar next door. They must have deemed us a suitable audience.
Amanda yawned, and I patted my belly. “I gotta get home and take a crap,” I said. All night I’d been waiting to say something tasteless, and there it was.
The next morning I went to my regular Sunday AA meeting at the American Legion hall near my house. The clientele there is older and hardened, a lot of retired union workers, men and women alike. The meeting is held in the basement function room, which is dim and smells like carpet mold and burnt coffee. There is a bar along the back wall. No one is allowed to sit there, so says the chairperson as she reads the introduction. This makes sense for many reasons.
The room is filled with round tables. I imagine this is where the spaghetti dinners take place on Friday nights. For now the room is temporarily dressed with AA banners. LIVE AND LET LIVE. BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD. REMEMBER WHEN. A man steps up behind the podium and introduces himself as Rick from the Quincy noon meeting. He doesn’t want to spend too much time on the past, he says, because he doesn’t want to glorify it. But he gives us a quick timeline of events that includes running away from home as a teenager, joining the army, going to jail and living out of his car for a year. I imagine each of these is its own incredible story, but Rick wants to get to the important stuff—getting sober and all of the gifts that come with it: starting a business, meeting his wife, buying a home, having a kid. Then he adds, almost incidentally, how his kid died of an overdose two years ago. “He had the disease,” he says. He stops and takes a breath, and then he keeps going, ultimately arriving at a message of strength and hope.
I sit in my chair and listen, my attention completely on the podium. Nothing in the world exists at that moment except Rick from the Quincy noon meeting. When he finishes the room thanks him, in unison. He walks off the stage, and I feel something good, like my worldview has just broadened, like I’m happy to be alive.
These days it's acceptable to dig through the Internet at work, even when it’s busy. For me it’s a form of release, like a cigarette break—five minutes of every hour I let my brain soak in something totally irrelevant, like famous crime scene photos or an old episode of Phil Donahue. Just a quick hit is all I need, anything to satisfy the urge for mindlessness before diving back into my job, where I spend long chunks of time writing headlines for men’s jeans.
A couple years back, a creative director came into my office to check on a project. He lingered in the doorway, calling my name, but I was watching a YouTube video with my headphones on. Finally he tapped my shoulder. “What’re you watching?” he said. I paused the video and removed my headphones, and explained to him, rather meekly, that it was a Guns N’ Roses concert from 1991. He leaned in for a better look. The picture was fuzzy but clear enough: Axl Rose, frozen on my monitor, wearing nothing but skin-tight cycling shorts, a feather boa and a leather motorcycle cap. “Cool,” the creative director said, hiding his embarrassment for both of us.
You’re allowed one of these, but when it happens regularly it becomes a running joke—the kind that starts with a chuckle and ends with concern. Whenever this person came into my office I’d be slumped at my desk, my head propped on my fist while I stared, glassy-eyed, at a different Guns N’ Roses concert. Rio de Janeiro, ‘93. Indiana, ‘92. The Ritz Ballroom, New York, 1988. Soon he came to expect it, and if I happened to be doing actual work when he walked in he’d ask, with sincerity, “Where’s Axl today?”
Suddenly all of my downtime was devoted to old Guns N’ Roses concert footage. Some days I hammered out an entire two-and-a-half hour show before lunch, and then afterward I’d feel depressed, just wanting to go home and crawl into bed. I’d mope around the office in a crabby mood, unmotivated, barely making my deadlines, drinking a lot of coffee and eating bad food. It was as though I’d exposed myself to something radioactive that was slowly eating away at my physical and mental health.
When I mentioned this to my therapist he said Axl Rose represented my own failed ambitions. “We’ve spent a great deal of time talking about your remorse over your career choices,” he told me, “and how you never put yourself out there or took any big chances.” He explained that Axl—who he’d only vaguely heard of before I introduced the subject—embodied the fearlessness and drive that, according to me, had been vitally absent my whole life. This, said the shrink, might explain the hollowness I felt after inundating myself with his concert footage. “Hitchhiking to L.A., living in squalor as a struggling artist, making music as a form of self-expression and getting paid for it…he took the ultimate risk, and he reaped the ultimate reward: he became a superstar.”
Discussing a rock star obsession seemed appropriate inside my shrink’s soundproof office, but on the drive home, in the outside world, I felt like an idiot. I had just spent forty-five minutes talking to my therapist about Axl Rose—a ninety-dollar conversation, paid for by my health insurance. Now Guns N’ Roses was part of our repertoire, along with medically recognized issues like anxiety and depression. From that point on, whenever our meetings hit a lull, my shrink delicately broached the subject. “How’s the Axl Rose thing coming? Anything we should talk about there?”
After five minutes of silence I open up. “I don’t know which is worse,” I tell him, “Not taking any risks, or not having the talent in the first place. I guess I’ll never know.”
I’m referring to the summer of 2002, when I quit my job and drove out to Los Angeles to pursue standup comedy. It was a capricious idea that occurred to me while sitting on my drug dealer’s couch, high on painkillers, watching Jimmy Fallon host the MTV Movie Awards. “I need to go to L.A.,” I said, casually, the same way one remembers to buy life insurance after seeing an Allstate commercial. It was as though fame was on my to-do list and I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
My mother felt the decision was impulsive and suggested a smaller first step. “Shouldn’t you try comedy in Boston at least once, see if you’re any good, before packing up your life and driving to the other side of the country?” A logical notion, but I wouldn’t hear it. When I make a go of something, I prefer to go all in or not at all. Like the time I took guitar lessons as a kid. My mother bought me a Hondo—a cheap electric guitar designed for beginners, basically a slab of fiberglass with strings. It was like learning to play tennis with a cinderblock, and after a year of plucking away at Beatles melodies, I quit. Had she bought me the $1400 Gibson Les Paul I’d asked for, who knows where I might be today.
“I’ll spend the summer writing jokes,” I told her. “That way I’ll have a whole set ready when I leave.” I was living in my parents’ basement at the time, so my material varied between pathetic and creepy. “I tell ya, dating is hard,” I said into my microcassette recorder as I paced around the cellar, “dinner is usually someplace nice, like Applebee’s, and if everything goes well it’s back to my high school bleachers.” This was funny at first, but as I played back the tape a pitiful truth was revealed—this handheld electronic device telling me, in my own voice, that I was a loser. Joke after joke about living at home, watching sitcoms with my parents, discovering piles of clean laundry magically folded on my bed. I’d stop the tape and sit quietly with my thoughts, hearing only the faint sound of opera that chirped from my dad’s transistor radio, which had been sitting on his workbench and set to the same AM station since 1979. I have to leave here, I thought. And go far away.
My plan was to travel light, to leave the past behind and start fresh. Somehow this meant a visit to the doctor before I left. Not my doctor, but Dr. Wang, who worked out of an urgent care clinic on the seedier side of Waltham. The waiting room was packed with cash-paying customers—a mix of quiet immigrants and frantic drug-seeking white people. “You said Tuesday!” a large pyramid of a woman yelled at the nurse, this while her three small children wrestled on the floor and threw Tinker Toys at each other. With her mullet and her oversized hockey jersey she looked more like a teenager from Winnipeg than a mother of three. “Call Medicaid. I’m sick of this crap,” she shouted with a voice that sounded like a dying robot. “I been waiting here two hours, and I ain’t going home without my script.”
When the nurse called my name I got up slowly, clutching my back and wincing from imaginary pain. I walked in baby steps as she led me to the doctor’s office.
“You back again?” said Dr. Wang. I wasn’t sure if he meant “back” as in return, or the part of my body with the phony injury. Both were true, as this was my third visit since June. I nodded, and then shivered as the neck movement pinched an imaginary nerve.
Rather than ask how I managed to hurt my back again, his only concern was proof of insurance. Once that was verified he wrote me a prescription for twenty-eight Vicodin—enough to get me to Los Angeles, where I pledged to quit drugs and focus all of my attention on my comedy career. I thanked Dr. Wang and walked out of his office, elated, then remembered to hunch over in pain, at least until I reached the elevator.
Wired from pills, I drove straight to Indianapolis on my first night. On the second night I made it to Denver. That’s where the drugs ran out. By the time I reached Utah, the following afternoon, a wave of depression hit me and I considered turning around and driving home. When I finally arrived in L.A. I was sick with withdrawal, shaking and dry-heaving in the parking lot of a Ralph’s supermarket.
An hour later a Nissan Sentra pulled into the lot—my friend Jason, who was letting me crash with him until I got on my feet. He walked up to the car and knocked on my window. “You made it, kid!” he said, “Welcome to Hollywood!” But I stayed in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead. Finally I rolled down the window.
“I need to lie down,” I said, but it came out sounding more like “please kill me”.
After four days on Jason’s floor I felt better and decided to find a job and my own place. The apartment came quick—a studio on North Sycamore, around the corner from Mann’s Chinese Theater—but the job search was fruitless. I started with the coolest bars and hotels in Hollywood and worked my down, all the way to a Kmart in Pasadena. I sat on my beanbag and stared at the application, the paper trembling in my hands, the ink smudged from my teardrops.
As I listed my references the phone rang. It was the bellhop from The Beverly Hills Hotel, who’d just come across my resume and offered me a job as a valet attendant. “Yes sir, thank you!” I beamed, throwing away the Kmart application. I’ve heard miraculous Hollywood stories like this before, someone about to throw in the towel when suddenly an opportunity comes out of nowhere and changes everything. This happened to Dustin Hoffman, who was on his way to the unemployment office when his agent phoned with a job offer. Of course, his was the lead role in The Graduate, and mine was parking cars for nine bucks an hour, but the symmetry wasn’t lost on me, and I took it as a good omen.
I saw a lot of celebrities at the Beverly Hills Hotel, though they refused to see me. Every time I handed them a ticket or opened a car door they would deliberately turn away, the way one does when having blood drawn. Seinfeld, Tim Allen, Stallone, Rod Stewart—all dismissed me as a lowly servant. Only two stars were decent enough to smile and make eye contact: Dana Carvey and Jon Bon Jovi. I told myself when I hit it big I’d repay them by casting them both in a buddy cop movie.
Though often demoralizing, parking cars at an iconic Beverly Hills institution fit with my image as an aspiring entertainer. I pictured myself in future interviews, listing off the odd jobs I did to support myself, looking back with fondness on their simplicity, before life was consumed by the daily assault of lawyers and press junkets. “Enjoy these moments while you can,” I told myself one night as I jogged through the garage, searching for Tony Danza’s Jaguar.
Four shifts a week netted me about $240—a decent start but hardly enough to live on. The flexibility allowed me time to hone my comedy act and explore the club scene. First was the famous Laugh Factory on Sunset. I stopped by on a Sunday and bought a ten-dollar ticket to that evening’s show: Joe Rogan, who I knew as the host of TV’s Fear Factor. There were a half dozen people in the seats for the opening comic, and only a few more when Rogan took the stage. His act was loud and obnoxious, most of the jokes involving semen. The crowd was uncomfortable. It felt more like a behavioral study than a comedy show: the handful of audience members like scientists, sitting on the other side of a one-way mirror, sadly observing a disturbed man spiral into madness.
The following day I returned to the Laugh Factory to sign up for its open mike night. Names were taken on a first-come basis, so for three hours myself and ten other amateur comics waited outside the box office, on the sidewalk, in plain view of the traffic on Sunset Boulevard. Whenever a fancy car pulled up to the stoplight everyone assumed a posture. One guy would start shuffling blank notebook pages to make it seem like he had an endless supply of jokes. It was humiliating, us standing there. I felt like an orphan with an empty bowl in my hand and a sign that read PICK ME.
That night I sat in the back of the club, waiting for the host to call my name. After seven comics I took the stage, frightened as I stared out at the mangy audience. “So…I just moved to L.A.,” I began. “I like it here. There are apartments for rent. Where I come from we don’t have apartments, only parents’ basements.” I heard a few laughs, and my nerves calmed down. “I got a place in Hollywood. It’s called a studio apartment. It’s nice but I think it was false advertising because it’s nowhere near Warner Bros., Paramount or Universal.” A few more chuckles. “Has anyone heard of Steven Spielberg? I’d like to meet him. It’s on my list, right after opening a bank account and buying dish soap.”
I closed out my five-minute set with a thank you to the millions of losers in Los Angeles who made me feel at home, especially those in my apartment building. “Thank you creepy guy in 3G,” I said. “I don’t know your name, but because of you I no longer feel ashamed when I get naked and stare out the window.” I waved to the crowd. “I’m Danny Pellegrini. Thank you very much. Good night.”
The crowd applauded, a few even cheered. I stepped off the stage feeling like a true entertainer. Pay attention, I thought. They’ll be asking about this night for the rest of my career.
My second gig was the following Monday at a UCLA bar in Westwood. I hadn’t written any new material, which was fine because I wanted to focus on my mannerisms and timing and not worry about remembering jokes. My confidence was high, fresh off the success of my first show. I opened with the same bit: “Out here you have apartments. Back home all we have are parents’ basements.” I was sure it would kill but the audience was silent. Not even a courtesy laugh. They stared back at me as though still waiting for the punch line. I moved quickly into my next joke about driving around my old high school smoking weed and listening to Van Halen. That one landed with a thud, too. “Okay,” I said, sweating under the hot lights. I looked up and saw a table of four college kids, talking amongst themselves, not even paying attention.
I trudged on. “This summer I took a date to, uh, Applebee’s, and uh…” Now there was something in my eye, a flickering redness. I thought I might be having a stroke when I looked down and saw a red dot on my chest: a laser pointer—the modern day version of the hook. The emcee sat in the back of the audience, shining it on me.
“Should I go?” I said.
“Please,” he said into his microphone. I waved, dropped my head and walked off to the sound of a single sympathy clap.
I’ve never been the resilient type. Sure, I’ve dealt with a full caseload of personal demons and health challenges, but with non-life-or-death stuff I tend to get frustrated or lose interest as soon as the waters get rough. Anything hard is stupid: learning to ice skate, writing a novel, maintaining a relationship. Even my own conversations fail to retain my attention. “Forget it, it’s stupid,” I’ll say halfway through a story about a police raid at my neighbor’s house. This frustrates my audience, and they demand I finish. I apologize and tell them I lost my train of thought, and then I blame them, saying they didn’t seem too interested anyway.
In spite of my defeatist nature I vowed to pick myself up and carry on. Perseverance is what separates the successful from the rest of the crowd, I told myself as I repeatedly dialed my weed dealer’s phone number. Talent and skill get you in the game, but toughness keeps you there. I bought a book called Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy. I studied videotapes of great comedians. I hunkered down at a coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard, writing ideas into a notebook. Often I saw costumed characters sitting together, the ones that pose with tourists in front of the Chinese Theater. Batman, Marilyn Munroe, James Dean, Chewbacca—all taking the same lunch break. At first it was delightful, but the more I listened to them the bleaker it got. Talk of eviction notices, verbal abuse from pedestrians, loved ones who cut them out of their lives. The reality that my make-believe heroes had terrible lives and survived off wrinkled dollar bills was too much for me. The final straw came when Superman stood up, threw a handful of coins on the table and called Freddy Krueger an ungrateful asshole. He stormed out of the café, holding back tears. From then on I went to Starbucks.
After paying my second month’s rent I was broke. I had cigarettes and weed, but had to forgo certain luxuries, like hard drugs, and food. Then another miracle happened. A restaurant I applied to when I first got to town had passed my resume on to a club promoter, someone by the name of Johnny Eyelash. He wanted to meet me regarding a bartending job at an after-hours club on Melrose. In his voicemail he described the clientele as “exclusive, VIP-type” and said that he needed a “star bartender, someone worthy of an A-list crowd”.
A-list crowd? Star bartender? That evening I met with Johnny Eyelash at the club’s location. I expected someone androgynous, like David Bowie or Andy Warhol, possibly wearing mascara and a velveteen jacket. To my surprise Johnny Eyelash was a pudgy 25 year-old Italian kid from Staten Island. He and some friends had moved to L.A. a year ago, opened a couple restaurants and were “diversifying”, as he put it. My shifts were Friday and Saturday, from two to six in the morning. “You’ll be making between five hundy to a G each night. All you gotta do is pour the drinks and look good. We need a star, kid. You got what it takes?”
I told him yes, absolutely. Up to two thousand dollars a week for eight hours of work? My entire week would be free to pursue comedy. This was another omen, telling me to hang in there.
The club was really just a recurring party held in a fourth floor apartment that, according to Johnny Eyelash, was once owned by Liberace. A fifty-dollar cover charge got you in the door, and after that drinks were free. I was told this system would work to my advantage, that an open bar meant customers would tip well, when in fact the opposite was true: people drank more and saved their remaining cash for the club’s cocaine dealer, who strolled around the dance floor looking somber and inconspicuous. The only celebrity I saw was Jason Priestly. He was huge when I was in high school, but his star had dimmed considerably, which might explain why he was at the club, and why he asked to borrow forty bucks.
Still, the house was packed on opening night. I poured at least five hundred drinks. At the end of my shift, after tipping the bar back, I made $120.
The next night thirty people showed up at the club. I stood behind the bar like a stooge, wiping tears from my eyes, struggling to stay awake. At three AM I bought a gram of cocaine from the club’s dealer. By six it was gone. I netted twelve bucks that night, minus the fifty I spent on drugs. On the drive home I blew a stop sign and crashed into a Buick LeSabre, a father and daughter on their way to church. Their damages were minor and luckily neither of them hurt, but my Acura was totaled. I managed to drive it back to my apartment without passing any cops, who surely would have been suspicious of a man in leather pants driving a car with a crushed hood early on Sunday morning.
Club Liberace never returned to the glory of its opening night, and I never made more than eighty bucks a shift. I quit after a few weeks but maintained a good relationship with the drug dealer, who also sold painkillers. Whenever I saw him, life was good: he’d drop off a package in the morning and I’d spend the day walking through Hollywood, dreaming of a successful show business career. Days when I didn’t see him I stayed in bed and longed for the basics, like an appetite or a functioning car. My lowest points came at the valet job. During those days comedy was the furthest thing from my mind, and believe me, if I ever needed a sense of humor it was then, riding the bus down Sunset Boulevard, dopesick, dressed in my white sneakers, white pants and pink Beverly Hills Hotel polo. As we passed through the Strip I’d look out and see the Monday open mike amateurs, lined up outside the Laugh Factory, hopeful, wondering if the Gods of Fame will choose them.
Better toughen up kids, I thought. This town will eat you alive.
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to go back to Boston, but for the story’s sake let’s say it was December 25th. I worked at the hotel that night, since the other valets had families, and I had nothing. It was slow and there wasn’t much to do but stand there at attention, my arms held behind my back. After a long stretch of quiet a car pulled up. I opened the door and greeted a young man, Carson Daly, who at the time hosted the MTV show Total Request Live. He thanked me, grabbed an overnight bag and walked into the hotel, alone. He seemed preoccupied and a little disgruntled. I wondered what brought him here on Christmas night. Then I wondered how he got started in show business. Then, for the first time in months, my mind became calm. The needling envy and discontentment were gone, and, at least for the moment, I felt okay about being a nobody.
Eventually I got the insurance check for my totaled Acura. I bought a used Jeep from one of the valet guys and had enough left over for the drive home. I left everything behind: beanbag, dish rack, milk crates—all of it. Before heading out I saw a Russian doctor on La Cienaga. I told her my back hurt and she wrote me a script for twenty-eight Vicodin. Enough to get me back to Boston, where I’d clean up and focus on a new chapter in my life, something yet to be written.
Or something that may never be written at all.
(From a journal entry dated May 7 2016)
The rule in movie theaters is: when the lights go down, it’s time to stop talking and bring your attention to the screen. There’s also an unwritten rule that works in tandem with that: while waiting for the film to begin, hushed voices are preferred. This is observed in most dimly lit spaces, such as fine-dining restaurants, say, or funeral parlors. The amount of light directly correlates with speaking volume. When I’m inside Target, which is lit like an operating room, I have no problem cupping my hand around my mouth and shouting to my wife, three aisles over, to remember the Preparation H. But in low light I have a natural tendency to whisper, giving the most trivial subjects—like basement dehumidifiers, or zero-percent APR financing—a clandestine and revelatory aura.
Some people are unaware of this rule, or they choose to ignore it. These are the ones in the museum, screeching so loud that even the oil paintings cringe, or the guy who steps into the elevator, phone to his ear, making plans with someone named “bro” and assuring him that everything is “all good” while five strangers are sardined around him, fantasizing about his gruesome death.
Maybe it’s the power trip that comes with hijacking a readymade audience, but I’ve never understood loud talkers. Call it paranoia or delusion, but I don’t want any unintended recipients hearing my conversation. Partly it’s out of respect for those within earshot, but mostly it’s because I’m weirdly protective of my thoughts. Do I really want the table next to me to know that I’ve invented a new laugh, one that’s modeled after the theme from Entertainment Tonight? Or my stance on tax reform, which I memorized from a Facebook post I read earlier that morning?
If you’re going to command a space with your conversation, at least make an effort to use compelling material. On a recent flight to Palm Beach, two weight-lifting buddies in the row behind me discussed the properties of whey protein, an exchange that lasted from takeoff to somewhere over the Carolinas. They projected their voices and spoke with the kind of enthusiasm found in infomercials. Were they deliberately trying to drown out the jet engines? Were they showing off their commitment to physical fitness, or their knowledge of the local GNC? No one could possibly find this interesting, not even them. Now, revise the conversation slightly, change protein drinks to illegal steroids and make the health food store a warehouse in Chinatown, and you’ve got something. Take it a step further and change bench-pressing to organ harvesting, and I’ll gladly stow away my novel, sit back, and follow along.
As it happens, the ones with the most interesting stories rarely speak loud. Sometimes you’ll overhear a gem, like “Susan, at some point we have to return that child”, but for the most part it’s just pointless noise dialed up to a higher volume.
In movie theaters, the chatter leans toward film analysis, a topic that makes any moderately educated person sound like an asshole. Place any two people in front of an empty screen and they assume the roles of Siskel and Ebert. As such, they tend to dress up their conversations with scholarly language, using terms like “self-aware” and referring to movies as “exercises”. I find myself cheering on those who tell it straight, like the woman in front of me who ended a discussion on Argo by spitting out a fingernail and calling Ben Affleck a douche, or the teenager who summed up Zootopia by saying, “I don’t care if it won an Oscar, I’m not fucking seven anymore.”
Last night Amanda and I saw the film Sing Street at a small, independent theater in the suburbs. Sitting behind us were a man and woman. I didn’t notice them when I sat down, but once I settled in their voices rose above the din and I was treated to my own personal radio show. Tonight’s episode was called: Who’s that actress?
“…The one from that film, about the train, in India, oh she’s good,” said the woman.
“You mean the one with Redford and Streep?”
“No. It’s not a train. It’s a hotel. Why was I thinking train?”
“Oh, you mean that woman from Misery, what’s her name, Karen Bates.”
“Is that her? The one who played the Queen?”
“The one who played the Queen…with the red hair?”
Normally I would have simmered with rage, hating these people twofold: first for not remembering the actress’s name, and then for being so vocal about it. But as it were, I liked this couple. I couldn’t see their faces, but given the clumsy amble of their dialogue, I placed them somewhere in their late-sixties. Had they been younger than me I would have turned around and threatened them with violence, but it’s kind of sweet when older folk bobble a piece of pop culture knowledge. I could have turned around and politely said “Dame Judi Dench”, bringing an end to the mystery, but, as an audience member, I enjoy being one step ahead of the characters I’m following. It’s a common narrative technique that draws us into a story and heightens suspense. The ticking bomb in the suitcase. The woman who hides her terminal illness from her lover. The name of an Oscar-winning actress that escapes two people sitting in a movie theater.
Eventually they moved onto another topic, and I got up and went to the concession stand. On my way back I got a visual of the man: narrow face, round eyeglasses, gray hair pulled into a ponytail, horseshoe mustache. The woman, sitting on the other side of him, was obscured.
I sat down and handed Amanda a Diet Coke. She showed me her phone. On the screen was a picture from some realtor website. Amanda said something about an open house on Sunday, but that was drowned out by the loud, creaking voice of the woman behind me.
“Did you grow up around Boston?” the woman said.
I had originally pegged these two as a married couple, empty nesters probably. But given this type of get-to-know-you banter, it seemed more like a first date. Were they widowers? Divorcees? Or a pair of lonely hearts who, after a lifetime of searching, had finally found each other?
“Boone, Iowa,” the man replied. “It’s a little town about fifty miles north of Des Moines.”
The woman said “ah”. How else does one respond to Boone, Iowa? I turned my head slightly, trying to get a visual of the woman, when Amanda held out her phone again, this time showing me a picture of a different house. “Needham,” she whispered. “Fifteen hundred square feet, but only one bathroom.”
I looked down at her screen, but instead of a ranch-style home I saw a water tower, looming before a Midwestern sky, the name BOONE stenciled across it.
“My sister Gail married a man from Kansas City,” the woman said. “He owned a small manufacturing company that made medical devices, before he retired. His son Wade runs it now, so that’s nice.” There was a pause. I felt like more was coming. Amanda said something about emailing a realtor, but my attention was on Wade.
Then the woman continued. “And what did you do for work?”
Amanda asked if I’d heard back from my sister about Memorial Day. I shushed her.
“I was a high school history teacher for thirty-one years. Now I work in retail, where I make minimum wage.”
It was a bombshell of a plot twist. The history teacher bit, yes—that worked. But why retail? Wouldn’t he be tenured, and collecting a pension? To that end, wouldn’t he still be teaching? And if not, was he fired? And then the way he tacked on “where I make minimum wage”…so matter of fact, as though it was part of his job title. Not a trace of bitterness or shame. Why not just tell her he was a retired history teacher and leave it at that? It wasn’t a lie, just like the time I told a date I lived in Newton, but selectively left out the part about it being my parents’ house.
There had to be more to this story. Just then I noticed a piece of popcorn in my hand. I’d been clutching it for the last five minutes and had compressed it into a small bit of yellow Styrofoam, matted with skin oil and liquid butter. I dropped it on the floor and wiped my hand on my pant leg.
“Which retail store?” the woman said.
“Petco. The one on Waverly Street. I work four nights a week. It’s okay, but my manager, she’s, well, she can be a little, I don’t know. I guess she’s just doing her job.”
I imagined this man, with a gray ponytail, dressed in a blue polo shirt with the Petco logo stitched on the breast, standing behind the register, his finger hovering over one of the buttons. His eyeglasses are on the tip of his nose. He is lost, frightened. Next to him an impatient young woman holds a massive set of keys.
My jaw hung open. My chest heaved with each breath. Ask him why he left teaching, I thought. I had to know.
I felt Amanda’s hand on my leg. She shook her head and mouthed, “Stop listening to them. It’s rude.”
Rude? I was sitting in my chair, staring straight ahead. Their conversation was loud and inescapable. The only way I could appear uninterested was to read something on my phone, or talk to Amanda about real estate. Why should I be forced into one of these alternate options, just to give these people a sense of privacy?
“I became a teacher to get out of Vietnam. It was either that or move to Canada.”
Now Amanda froze. Her head stayed straight but her pupils swung in my direction. Another wrenching plot twist, this one challenging my allegiance to the main character. Though he certainly wasn’t the only young man who’d objected to the war, fleeing from combat isn’t the most noble of things. On the other hand, divulging this to someone you hardly knew—much less on a date—was courageous. These are the ambiguities that make great characters. Do I like him or not? The answer lies somewhere between the two, in that complicated and murky space, prompting fierce discussions among audience members as they filter out of the theater.
There was a pause, and the woman said: “My older brother was killed in Vietnam.”
The lights went down, and the theater’s logo animated in bright colors on the screen, accompanied by its deafening jingle. This was followed by the Coming Attractions—a handful of trailers, indie films, all with the same basic plotline: four quirky thirty-somethings and how they navigate the obstacles of love, friendship and adulthood.
The story I really wanted to see, though, was sitting behind me.
When I look back on the cruel joke known as my life, three things stand out. Number one is my Crohn’s Disease. For those who don’t know, Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease. I’d never heard of it before, and when I was diagnosed, at nineteen, I felt embarrassed. Not because I’d be sick for the rest of my life but because I had a disease no one had heard of. It was like getting accepted to a crappy state school. “Why couldn’t I get diabetes, like Matt?” I wondered. Matt was my best friend growing up. He was better looking, dated prettier girls and wore cooler clothes. Now he had a cooler disease. His had to do with blood sugar, so he kept with him a neat diabetes kit with glucose meters and a supply of insulin shots. Mine had to do with diarrhea, so I carried around a pocketful of toilet paper. Even the name diabetes sounded cooler, strong, like a Greek warrior, while Crohn’s was basically “groan” combined with “corn”.
Number two is my drug addiction. Because of the chronic diarrhea, my twenties were spent tucked away in various studio apartments, wearing pajama bottoms and watching TV. I couldn’t stray far from the toilet, but I needed something to fill the gaping hole once reserved for a social life. That something was opiates. I didn’t even know what they were until age twenty-three, when I had my first root canal, but once I got a taste I spent the next fifteen years hunting them down, like an obsessed detective. Nothing else mattered—friends, romance, hygiene; nothing. I thought about painkillers all day long. I dreamt about them at night. Sometimes I looked at pictures of them on the internet, gazing the way a detective might while browsing through a cold case file, remembering his days as a rookie, just starting out.
Far worse than bowel disease or opiod abuse, however, was my insufferable hair—number three on my list of defining characteristics. I had never seen straighter hair on another living thing, human or animal—and that’s not an exaggeration. I had seen straighter hair on a tennis ball, one that was old and deflated and had been smacked so many times that it was nothing but stray threads of fabric hanging onto a beaten-down nub of its former self, the word “Wilson” barely legible in faded pink print.
Even at its fullest, my hair was a thin and feathery bulb around my face, a helmet made of milkweed. As a kid in the early eighties, this was acceptable—anyone with straight hair under the age of ten had the same pageboy hairdo. But as bodies matured, hairstyles followed—for most, that is. Toward the end of grammar school my friends began parting their hair, some even combing the sides back. I watched with envy as long, swooping waves took shape on their heads. Hair hung freely above their eyes and feathered out the back, while mine remained dull and unresponsive, falling straight down, like a blanket you’d drape over a birdcage. The only time my hair obeyed was when it was soaking wet, right after a shower. Those five minutes were glimpses into a better life. The steam would clear and I’d stand there, comb in hand, ready to mold my hair into whoever I wanted to be: Patrick Swayze, Michael J. Fox—the possibilities were endless.
I held onto the pitiful hope that it would dry that way, but of course it never did. One by one the strands popped back into their natural place. By the time I arrived at school my hair was the same lifeless pelt it always was. It was like a clown punching bag, the kind that are weighted at the bottom—every time you knock it down it just bounces back up, mocking you with that evil clown smile.
One Saturday a friend and I took the train into Boston to visit a rock n’ roll paraphernalia shop called Stairway to Heaven. As we walked through the Commons I saw a homeless man, asleep on a blanket. What struck me wasn’t the rancid smell, or the urine stain on his pant leg, or the gangrene on his toes, but rather his hair. It was a thick, elegant mane, long and dark and just the right amount of oily. I was amazed at how it stayed naturally back while the sides clung to his face in these lazy, seahorse-shaped curls. The symmetry and curvature were perfect, and it occurred to me that mortal hands were not capable of creating such beauty. “So unfair,” I said, cursing God, thinking how I’d give anything to trade places with this homeless man. “Some people are just blessed.”
As a dainty twelve year old with a head like a dandelion, I was nervous about entering junior high. I’d be mixed in with hundreds of other kids, new faces from different districts, some a lot meaner than mine. To survive I’d need to toughen up my image, so that summer I sought counsel from Eddie Mahoney, an older boy who’d gone to my elementary school. He was the bad seed, the kid your parents warned you about. He smoked cigarettes, wore denim jackets and rode a stolen BMX bike. He also had blonde hair that was silky in texture, parted nicely down the middle, and by some miracle stayed tight at the sides and didn’t bulge out like mine. His mullet had a natural taper and even curled up slightly at the bottom. I could learn a thing or two from this guy.
Eddie had already graduated from junior high and was keen on the etiquette, certain customs like how one should dress and what music they should listen to. “Aerosmith, AC/DC…” he said, counting off his fingers. “Polo shirts, Capezio shoes, Girbaud jeans…what else…Dep styling gel…Drakkar cologne...”
“Wait—go back,” I said. “Before Drakkar. Styling gel? What is that?”
And that’s how I discovered hair product: from Eddie Mahoney, the neighborhood bully.
That afternoon I rode my bike to CVS and bought my first bottle of Dep styling gel. It cost $2.99 and came in three pastel colors—green, yellow and pink, like dish soap. The colors had no real significance, only to suggest that with this product came the promise of a certain lifestyle. One that was exclusive to Miami or Los Angeles.
I spent thirty minutes each morning working with the gel, forcing a part into my hair and slicking back the sides. I slathered it on by the handful, sometimes molding individual locks to fashion the perfect bend. Then I’d napalm the entire area with my sister’s Aqua Net hairspray. The sides stayed back okay, but the top looked like a steeple made of dry wicker. When I finished, my hair was crisp and painful. It made a crunching sound when I raised my eyebrows, like tiny bones being squished under a shoe. Often I experienced headaches from the strain of the follicles trying to free themselves from bondage.
It wasn’t pretty, but it got me close to where I wanted to be, and that was Top Gun. When I first saw that film it was like meeting an older brother who’d been kept secret my whole life. Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot was the “best of the best”—exactly the kind of male role model I needed. My father wasn’t really doing the trick, what with his fiery temper, sock holders and Oldsmobile Cutlass. Cruise’s character was cool and dangerous, tan and physically fit. He had jet-black hair that was combed up and over to the side, which—more importantly—always looked wet, like he’d just stepped out of the shower.
I brought the movie’s VHS case to Burt, the seventy-year old barber who had cut my hair since I was a child. “Whatever you can do to make it like this,” I said.
He stared at it blankly. “Like military?” he said in his French accent.
“Not regular military,” I said. “This guy rides a motorcycle. He plays beach volleyball.” I scratched my head, frustrated by the cultural barrier. “Have you not seen this movie?”
Burt nodded as though he understood, and then gave me a crew cut. When I got home I shut myself in my bedroom until my father came and got me for dinner. “I don’t understand what you’re so upset about,” he said from behind the door. “At least now you look like a normal person.”
No response. “Son?”
I heard him, but I didn’t feel like talking. It would take at least two months for my hair to grow back to Top Gun length.
I sat and stared out my window for the rest of the night.
My family wasn’t sure what to make of my hair obsession, but once I started dressing in the Top Gun outfit they showed concern, or at least their version of it. “It’s not healthy for a boy your age to worry about this kind of crap,” my mother said, this after my sister’s boyfriend gave me a pair of used cowboy boots. “Have you seen yourself? You look like an idiot.”
“If you’re referring to the cowboy boots, they were a gift. And, if you must know, a lot of kids my age wear them.”
“Yeah, in Wyoming,” my mother said.
I shook my head, sighed and put on my aviator sunglasses. “Whatever,” I said. “I’m going to Joey’s for dinner.” Then I slid into my fur-lined bomber jacket and walked out into the stifling August afternoon.
It takes a certain mix of courage and delusion to dress exactly like a movie character on any day other than October 31st, and even more when it’s the first day of ninth grade. Had the Top Gun clothes fit properly it might have been less humiliating as I set foot into my new high school, but as it was I looked clownish. The quart of gel in my hair had begun to melt and run down my cheeks. The aviator sunglasses made no sense, given that the school was indoors. My spindly legs were lost inside my jeans. The bomber jacket hung flat from my narrow shoulders. And since the cowboy boots were a size too big I couldn’t walk in regular strides and instead cross-country skied over the linoleum, afraid to lift my feet, like a child playing dress-up in high heels.
“You are so cool,” said one twelfth-grade girl, applauding as I shuffled down the school’s main corridor. Though this was the desired response, I didn’t think people would actually say it aloud to me. Or line up and cheer, as many of the others did when I walked by.
In 10th grade I got an after-school job bagging groceries at Star Market. “Good. Now you’ll understand the value of a dollar,” my father said. He was right. With my own money came independence. The days of nine-dollar haircuts with Burt were over. I took my first paycheck and went to the fancy hair salon in the center of town.
“Wow, this is straighter than Asian hair,” said Tina, one the stylists, as she ran her hand across my head. “Yours isn’t just straight but extremely fine, and it grows in two different directions. On this side your hair grows straight down, but over here it actually grows outward. See? That’s why the sides are uneven. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“There must be something you can do,” I said. “How can I get from this,” I pointed to my lampshade hair, “to this,” I said, holding up a copy of Us magazine. It was open to a picture of Tom Cruise, standing behind a bar, tossing a bottle in the air—a still frame from the movie Cocktail. After that first day of high school I decided to move on to another Tom Cruise film, one with more mainstream hair and wardrobe.
“Well, he gets his hair permed,” Tina said. “It’s obvious. Look at how straight his hair is here,” she said, referring to the inset photo from Top Gun. “In Cocktail his hair is wavy. It’s just not natural, these two hairstyles. This one is a perm, no doubt about it.”
A light shone in the darkness. “Can I get a perm?” I said.
“Sure,” she said, rifling through my hair some more.
“It won’t be curly though, right?”
Tina shook her head. “For this we’ll do a body wave, which is like a perm but the curlers are bigger and looser.”
This sounded like a miracle cure, what I’d been searching for since third grade.
“We’ll need to wait a little while, though,” Tina continued. “Your hair has to be long enough for the curlers, or else it could come out kinky.”
I made an appointment for the following month and began the countdown.
The next day I told my friend Jason about the perm. He was a cashier at Star Market, and we often took our breaks together. We had common interests, like acting, and Tom Cruise, and hair. Not just our hair, but hair in general. A lot was happening in the industry. Where the eighties had gel, mousse and aerosol hairspray, the nineties reintroduced pomade to the world and gave birth to a new class of product that included wax, fiber, paste, and molding clay. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Jason’s hairstyle was straight but full, and able to hold a decent part down the side. I would have gladly traded an internal organ for his hair, but he was bored with it. He was always trying new looks, never quite content with any of them. Some days he wore it straight down and in his eyes, like a surfer. Other days it was gelled up into a messy pompadour and held back with a bandana around his forehead, a look that fell somewhere between 21 Jump Street and Color Me Badd. Each hairstyle came with its own distinct persona: straight down was the Southern California dude; gelled up with the bandana was the suave and urban white gangsta, a look that seemed out of place when you factored in the blue Star Market smock and the cash register.
Earlier, Jason had mentioned he was at a crossroads with his hair. He felt the pompadour look was too “Top 40” and was searching for something more sophisticated, something that required less product and maintenance. As inspiration he cited scenes from two movies that best represented his ideal look. That’s how particular Jason was—it wasn’t just so-and-so from some movie, it was so-and-so’s hair in this one specific moment. The first was Keanu Reeves in Point Break, near the end, after he jumps out of the airplane and rescues Tyler. “That’s it—that’s the hair I want. Right there,” Jason said, pausing the video as Tyler runs into Johnny Utah’s arms. The second scene was in Days of Thunder, also near the end, when Tom Cruise sits in his trailer preparing for his final race and tells Nicole Kidman that he doesn’t know how to do anything but drive. The latter was the most elusive. To Jason, the Days of Thunder hair was one of the great natural mysteries in the modern world.
When I told him about Tina and the miracle cure, he scratched his chin. Dubious. Cautiously optimistic. But his eyes were sparkling.
“A perm?” he said. “That’s not for girls?”
“Technically it’s a body wave,” I said. “A lot of guys get them. Tina said that Tom Cruise’s hair in Cocktail is a perm. She could tell right away.”
From his pocket Jason pulled a folded-up page torn out of People magazine. It was Tom Cruise in his Days of Thunder racing jumpsuit. Not the specific scene Jason referenced, but close. “Can she make my hair like this?” he said.
“I think you need to pick up the phone and call her,” I said, grinning, my mouth full of potato chips.
Jason scheduled his perm for the same Saturday as mine. We went to the salon together, on the bus, each with seventy bucks—money we had earned working part time at a supermarket, money that was now being spent on perms.
My appointment was first. Jason sat in the waiting area while Tina led me to her chair. She wet my hair with a spray bottle, combed it out, flattened it between her fingers and rolled it into curling rods. Once the curler was tight against my scalp, almost painfully so, she snapped it into place with a barrette-like latch. This is really happening, I thought, watching my head sprout with curlers.
Tina passed the time by talking about her boyfriend, a landscaper named Tony. In his spare time he fixed cars, so he always smelled like engine oil. I asked if she cut his hair, and she said no, Tony buzzed it himself. He didn’t care about the way he looked. I pictured him as a tough, quiet guy with calloused hands, never talking about his feelings, if he even had any. A real man’s man.
“Okay, let’s get you over to the hair dryer,” Tina said, leading me to the room with the plastic head bubbles, where I sat between two middle-aged women.
Once I was settled, Tina went to the waiting room for Jason. As they walked back Jason looked over at me—my hair in curlers, my head under a plastic dryer, perm solution collecting at my temples. He nodded at me, but his expression was blank. Fearful, even. I set down my copy of Marie Claire and gave him a reassuring thumbs-up.
Twenty minutes later Jason entered the room of plastic head bubbles, his hair now coiled into dozens of tight rods. He took the last available dryer, still with that despondent look on his face. He sat next to a woman who I’m quite certain was my third grade music teacher, Mrs. Averick. She kept glancing over, trying to figure out how she knew me. I lifted my magazine—by then I’d moved onto Cosmopolitan—and shielded my face with it.
A buzzer went off and Tina brought me back to her chair, where she removed the curlers, washed my hair and then blew dry it. I couldn’t believe what I saw in the mirror. My hair was curlier than I expected, but it looked natural, even the part on the side that Tina created. There would be no more globs of perfume-scented product, no more stiff, crunchy, jagged edges, no more cowlicks popping up throughout the day. Now I was equal. Normal. The person I’d always wanted to be. “I love it,” I said to Tina in the mirror. Then I turned back to her. “Thank you.”
Afterward, Jason and I waited at the bus stop, staring at our reflections in the glass. Jason was solemn. His hair came out even curlier than mine. Maybe it hadn’t grown out enough to perm, or maybe the curling rods were left in longer, but he looked like a French poodle. “Tina says the curls will relax in a few days,” I said, cheerfully. But Jason said nothing. He just turned his head from side to side, studying this new alien hairstyle, his face growing more hopeless with each rotation.
The bus came and we boarded. The passengers stared at us. At first I thought they were in awe of our hair, but by the end of the ride I realized we stank of hydrogen peroxide. If I could smell it that meant the others could smell it tenfold. A man in front of us had to cover his mouth with his hand.
We both wore baseball hats for the first three days back at school. On Thursday we made a pledge to take them off, convinced that enough time had passed for the curls to loosen up and not be so noticeable. Our first class on Thursday morning was theater arts, which we were both in together. The class was predominantly female, so we figured it was a safe place for trying out bold hairstyles. The logic was that girls were more sensitive and understanding when it came to image makeovers.
“Did you guys get your fucking hair permed?” said Katie Hanley as she entered the auditorium with a group of friends.
“No,” I said, defensively, while Jason slid down in his seat.
Class started with improv exercises. The teacher called a few students to the stage. “We need a guy up here, too.” He looked for us but didn’t recognize the two curly heads in the back row. “Jason? Danny? You two look different.”
“They got perms!” someone screamed.
“Can they do a rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Water?” someone else blurted out. “They can be Garfunkel and Garfunkel.” The class erupted in laughter, along with the teacher, who took a while to regain his composure.
As it turned out, the girls at school were merciless in their ridicule. They called us “curlicue” and “pubic head”, and when they laughed it wasn’t just a chuckle, it was a ferocious, knee-slapping belly laugh, the kind that brings tears to the eyes. “A fucking perm!” they screamed, holding their stomachs, spittle spraying from their mouths.
The boys, on the other hand, didn’t even notice. Some gave me a second look and asked if I got a haircut. “Just trying some new mousse,” I’d say, pointing at my hair, which was straight as a pencil three days ago and now looked like Michelangelo’s David. A couple guys asked outright if got a perm, to which I’d respond, snobbishly, “It’s a body wave.” And they’d just shrug and move on to something else.
As the curls relaxed, so did my classmates’ interest. After two weeks my hair had settled into a more natural-looking, wavy state. The Cocktail hair, precisely what I had wanted. It seems odd to feel so complete just because your hair has a natural wave, or a part down the side—traits that so many others take for granted, like a healthy bowel movement, or an evening glass of wine.
Two months later and all that remained of the perm was a lazy sweep at the bangs and a nice bend around my ears. Another two weeks and the perm had disappeared completely. But its ghost was there. I felt it in moments of insecurity and teen angst, those desperate episodes of youth when you feel left out and unpopular: the big party you don’t get invited to, or the teenage crush who won’t even smile back. This is the agony of adolescence that seems like it will never end. Those were the times the ghost of my perm would whisper to me, loud enough so only I could hear:
“Don’t worry, Danny,” it said. “Nothing lasts forever. Not even permanents.”
When I tell people I work in advertising, the most common response is, “Like Mad Men!” Yes, I tell them. Exactly like Mad Men. I get a similar reaction when I tell people I’m Italian. “Like The Sopranos!” they say. I’ve had numerous conversations—all of us have—where the most readily available access point is television or movies. Even historical events are more impactful with a cinematic gauge. Tell someone about D.B. Cooper and you’re apt to get a blank stare. Mention the part about him parachuting from an airplane with bags of stolen cash and suddenly your audience is enthralled, their eyes wide as they imagine a dogged FBI agent, played by Keanu Reeves, jumping out of the airplane after him.
In our hearts we know that real life can’t compete with the Hollywood version, but that doesn’t curb the disappointment when it falls short. In the last few years there’s been an unusual amount of Great White shark activity off of Cape Cod. Naturally we New Englanders were delighted. “Finally, it only took forty years! Will they close the beaches? Who will they hire to kill the thing?” I tuned in all summer, looking for a crackerjack team that included a hippie marine biologist and a salty old fisherman, only to be heartbroken when I learned that the matter was in the hands of professionals, learned men and women with high-tech gear and no intention of killing anything. Once it was clear that the shark would be monitored with an electromagnetic device, and not blown up by throwing a scuba tank in its mouth, I shut off the news and got on with my life.
The myth surrounding advertising is one of glamour, beautiful models, heavy drug use and office orgies. This may be true in some places, but where I work the ads are wholesome and family-friendly. I spent all of Thursday writing billboard copy for the Tallahassee Bureau of Tourism. Nine hours racking my brain for a clever headline to accompany four alligators playing golf.
Lately my job has consumed much of my time, so it seems appropriate to look back on where it all began: my first day in this business, before I realized there was more to this job than presenting storyboards to a conference room full of suits, like the opening scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
I’d returned home to Boston in the summer of 1999, after a failed eighteen months as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles. I lived at home with my parents, waited tables at night, partied until sunrise and by day searched for a new career in the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted page, anyplace that would hire a 24-year old with a year and a half of experience and a portfolio of college newspaper film reviews. Every day I scanned past jobs I’d never heard of, vague and ominous positions like underwriter or controller or estimator. There were several postings for pharmaceutical sales, auditors, restaurant managers, analysts, machinists, even drivers, but nothing for “Entry Level Ad Agency”. Then finally there it was, in bold lettering, tucked away at the bottom of the generic PROFESSIONAL section.
CHAMPIONSHIP ADVERTISING, a sports marketing firm, is looking for ambitious, motivated self-starters to join our team. Exciting opportunities! Earn up to $1,000/wk! Applicants will be screened by phone. Call 781-XXX-XXXX.
Sports marketing? I imagined myself behind a camera yelling “Cut!” while Pedro Martinez posed with a stick of deodorant. I called the number immediately and left a voicemail. Two hours later, while in the backyard smoking a joint, dressed in my Terrycloth robe, the phone rang. I ran inside and answered. A woman introduced herself as Susan Bowen from Championship Advertising. She sounded husky yet articulate and spoke with a thick Boston accent. I pictured Mary Tyler Moore sitting next to a box of merlot.
First she asked about my experience as a producer’s assistant. Then she asked if I had a car. Then she asked how soon I could start. I told her I could start right away. “Okay,” she said. “I just have one more question.” It sounded like she was shuffling papers, looking for something. “Oh. Right. How would you describe yourself in one word?”
“Hm,” I said, rubbing my lips, my fingertips smelling like cheap marijuana resin. “I guess…in one word…I’d have to say…um…” I had no idea what to say. What would she want to hear? I scratched my head and looked over at the living room mirror. There I was, at four in the afternoon, unshowered, wearing a robe and boxer shorts, tufts of bedhead sticking out like a missile silo, my eyes watery and bloodshot.
“In one word…I’d say I’m ambitious. Yeah, ambitious. Or maybe smart. No, ambitious.”
“Well congratulations. Why don’t you come in tomorrow at nine, and we’ll see how you do in the field?”
“Do I have the job?”
“Looks good so far. Come in tomorrow, meet some of our staff, sit in on a couple meetings, and we’ll take it from there.”
She gave me the address to the home office in Woburn, along with directions from I-95. I thanked her, hung up the phone and fist-pumped my reflection in the mirror. Then I realized I forgot to ask about health insurance, which I need due to my chronic bowel disease. I also forgot to ask about starting salary. And vacation time. And what exactly the job entailed.
No matter. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Since I didn’t have any friends, I celebrated alone that night, at Golden Star, the Chinese restaurant in Newtonville. There were always one or two familiar faces there, as well as Huey, the skinny Asian bartender who never spoke. This led me to believe that he was hiding something, like an inventory of Gremlins stashed in the back. At the bar that night was Roy Carbone, a city worker I knew from the neighborhood. In front of him were two packs of Marlboro Reds, five Keno tickets and a bottle of Bud Light. The beer bottle’s label was peeled off and torn into a pile of tiny shreds that sat next to his ashtray. “Hey buddy,” I said, slapping Roy’s back and taking the stool next to him.
He turned slowly to me, squinting through a plume of cigarette smoke with eyes that were set far back in his square head. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Danny. Pellegrini. I used to work at the restaurant next door.” I had hung out with Roy about sixty times over the past three years. What I should have said was “we snorted a gram of coke in the alley behind Pizzeria Uno last Sunday”, but I thought that might have been too forward.
“Oh yeah,” Roy said. He reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were thick and shaky, like four Jimmy Dean sausages on a frying pan, popping in their own grease.
I pulled out seventy-three bucks—my entire nest egg—and set it on the bar. Then a flash of prudency hit me and I tucked a twenty back into my pocket, just in case. I bought Roy a beer and ordered myself a Dewar’s—a taste I had acquired from my father’s liquor cabinet. Huey dropped off the drinks with a nod.
“I got a new job today,” I told Roy. “Advertising.”
Roy exhaled smoke across the bar. He swallowed forcibly for a moment, as though battling a severe attack of heartburn. “You want a job? Go up Church Street, up the fire station. Go see Dicky Iacuzzo, ya know, Joanie’s father. Tell him I sent ya, tell him you wanna take the firefighter exam. He’ll take care a yas.”
I nodded and tapped my finger on the rim of my rocks glass. “That’s an idea,” I said.
Roy continued, mumbling about how he was going to kill someone named Tommy. I drank my glass of Dewar’s and watched the Red Sox game on the TV above the bar, thinking about my new career in sports marketing.
We were the last ones to leave Golden Star that night, at a few minutes past one. I drank six Dewar’s and bought three of Roy’s beers. We also split an order of Teriyaki chicken and Peking dumplings. I spent all of my money, even the emergency twenty I was saving for gas.
I threw up twice on the walk home. When I finally got to my parents’ house I laid down in the front yard, smoked a cigarette and stared up at the moon. And that’s where I woke up, four hours later, to the smack of the Boston Globe landing on the front walkway, right next to my head.
* * * *
The traffic on 95 was slow moving. My head felt like it was in a vise grip. I was queasy and on the verge of heaving, as though my stomach was an oil drum, sliding around the back of a van, filled with watery refuse that spilled over the rim at every bump in the road. With every gag reflex came the burn of cheap scotch and the aftertaste of Asian beef. Even with the air conditioning on full blast I was brined in sweat. My neck was slimy underneath my shirt collar, my armpits and tailbone were damp, my butt crack felt like it was leaking. Droplets of melted hair gel trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes.
The hangover would wear off soon; the glory of a career in advertising, however, was infinite.
According to the site map in the office park’s lobby, Championship Advertising was located in suite 3C. The names of the neighboring businesses were stenciled in gold leaf lettering; Championship Advertising was written in black Sharpie on a piece of white paper that was taped over the previous occupant. A wave of nausea came over me. I rested my hand on the site map and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I arrived at suite 3C, my shirt sticking to my torso after walking up two flights of stairs thanks to an elevator that was OUT OF SERVICE. The smell of Golden Star’s barroom—a mixture of carpet mold and cigarette ash—seeped from my pores. A swell of diarrhea rose up from the pit of my stomach and then quieted. I knocked and walked in to the office.
The reception area was the size of a standard tollbooth. I introduced myself and was told to wait in Susan Bowen’s office at the end of the hall. On the way I passed a half dozen cubicles and saw two men and four women, all in their twenties. They sat at their desks and appeared to be hard at work, but something was missing. That something was computers and phones. And though they dressed professionally, in skirts and slacks and neckties, they were gaunt and ratty-looking, something about them slightly off, the incongruous white socks, the pencil-thin beard, or the prison tattoo creeping up from under a collar. They looked back at me as I walked by, their eyes straining to send a non-verbal message, one that I interpreted as either “help us” or “run”.
I arrived at an office with SUSAN BOWEN on the door. It was written in Sharpie and scotch-taped over a placard that read STORAGE. A moment later Susan walked in with a young woman in tow. “Hi, Danny. Susan Bowen. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. There was a rip in her pantyhose and a lipstick stain on one of her front teeth. The smell of makeup and polyester was so pungent I almost gagged. She gestured to the young woman behind her. “This is Heather. You’ll be shadowing her in the field today.”
Heather was roughly my age but dressed for her seventies, with a double-knit blouse, knee-length skirt and boxy high heels that were a size too small, making the tops of her feet look like loaves of bread rising out from two baking tins. She had puffy, chipmunk cheeks that were spotted with constellations of acne. It looked as though she’d just ate 100 mg of prednisone for breakfast.
“What exactly will we be doing today?” I said. And then, as an after thought: “…in the field.”
“Well, Danny, Championship Advertising is a direct marketing firm. We present local businesses with the opportunity to connect with and support some of our hometown professional sports teams, and in doing so gain awareness on a much broader level. For instance: last month PepsiCo hired us to promote a sweepstakes among local real estate offices. The winner got a one month free billboard on one of the Fleet Center’s loge sections.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting.” It did. Sort of.
Susan continued. “Today, of course, you and Heather will be working on a different initiative, but you get the picture.” She turned to Heather. “All set?”
Heather nodded, and the two of us were off, into the field.
* * * *
“Do you mind if I turn this down a bit?” I said, reaching over and lowering the volume on Jammin 94.5. “It’s a little early for Brittney Spears.”
“Sorry,” Heather said. We inched along interstate traffic in her Honda Civic. “And sorry about the air conditioning. I’m gonna fix it once I get the hundred and forty bucks.”
I nodded and leaned my head against the passenger-side window. The glass was hot against my temple. I felt faint. The edges of my vision blurred.
“What’s that smell?” I said.
She sniffed the air. “It could be exhaust. There’s a hole in the floorboard. I need to fix that, too.”
It definitely wasn’t exhaust. Something smelled sour, like spoiled milk. I looked toward the back seat and saw a menagerie of empty McDonald’s containers. One of them had the crust of a cheeseburger still inside it.
My mouth filled with saliva. I rolled down the window and leaned my head out. Heather asked me to roll it back up—apparently the sounds of the highway distracted her.
“So, where are we going?” I said, trying to be cheerful.
I waited for Heather to say more but instead she picked her nose and flicked away the debris.
“What are we doing in Billerica?”
She pointed at a three-ring binder wedged between the two front seats. I picked it up and opened it in my lap. Inside were sheets of pre-cut coupons, clipped together in packets. I flipped through one of them. The text and images and limited-time-only deals whirled past my eyes, but two things stood out:
Subway and Domino’s Pizza.
“What is this?” I said, barely audible.
“This week I’m meeting with businesses to discuss enhanced value lunch opportunities.” She nodded toward the binder. “For $19.99 a month they get premium access to Subway and Domino’s Pizza’s benefits program.”
I opened the packet again and examined one of the coupons: One large, thick crust pizza with any choice of topping, two large sodas and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. All for four dollars.
“There’s seven hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of food in there. We’re selling it for two hundred and forty. We’re giving these businesses over five hundred dollars.”
I was speechless. Heather mistook it as awe and continued. “I know what you’re thinking. Commission, right? What’s our end? Six percent. Well, I get six percent. But you will too, once you’ve completed your training and built your own client list.” She turned to me and smiled with a sinister overbite.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I looked out the window. We had gotten off the interstate a few minutes before and were now on a rural highway, in a remote area, far away from anything.
* * * *
The main commercial street of Billerica looked like a quaint Cape Cod neighborhood after a nuclear holocaust. The sidewalks were pitiful strips of dying grass. The businesses looked like residences: one-story, flat-roofed houses set back from the road, their windows barred and front yards overgrown with weeds. The late-morning heat approached ninety degrees, causing the air to hover in waves and turning the horizon a sickly pink, the color of a faded scab.
Heather and I walked along the sidewalk of dead grass. She eyed the offices for prospective sales while I struggled to remain conscious. I was dehydrated. My clothes stuck to me, especially my boxer shorts, which were crammed into my butt crack like a sumo belt, chafing my scrotum. I walked peg-legged in an effort to minimize the pain.
“Let’s try this place,” Heather said, pointing at one of the shitholes on our side of the street. We turned up the front walk.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does any of this have to do with sports?”
She sighed, opened up her binder and held it in my face. I looked at the top sheet of coupons. Printed underneath the Subway logo was: “The Official Sandwich of the Boston Red Sox.”
“Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, my right hand unwittingly forming into a fist.
We reached the door. Heather rang the doorbell and we entered into the foyer of a Russian dentist’s office. A woman with a surgical mask around her neck quickly approached us looking alarmed. “What is matter?” she asked in a thick eastern European accent.
She seemed relieved once Heather explained our business there. I half listened as Heather fumbled through her sales pitch, repeatedly referring to the binder, gushing about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a yearlong membership to a fast food chain. From my other ear I heard fax machine transmissions, drilling, and some screaming.
“Ma’am, as a premium member you not only get great deals on all Domino’s Pizza and Subway products, you also get all food made to order. Like, if you want extra cheese, or extra mayo, all you have to do is call this toll-free number and create a…hold on…” Heather flipped through a few pages in her binder. “…a custom profile.”
I felt like crying. The woman shook her head. “No. Not interested.”
Heather held up a finger. “Also there’s a cookie of the month club…”
“I don’t have time for this. Now you leave please.”
Heather nodded, thanked the woman, and we left. To her credit, she was resilient. She clutched the binder against her chest like a schoolgirl and marched down the sidewalk. “It’s okay. One down, forty-nine to go.”
I dropped my head in my hands.
Next up was an animal hospital. Before we turned up the walkway a pickup truck drove by. Half a dozen guys, shirtless and sunburned and drinking cans of beer, were packed into the back. They honked and whistled and shouted at Heather.
“Yeah, sweet ass! Wanna jump in the truck with us?”
I looked at Heather. Her hair was frizzy from the humidity and sweat streaked down her face. “I’m used to it,” she said. “I just ignore it.” She walked up to the animal hospital’s front door.
As soon as we walked through the door my stomach leapt into my throat. The hospital was one dingy room filled with cages. The stench assaulted me: animal food, animal feces, animal entrails, animal cadavers…all mixed together to form a potpourri of diseased wildlife. A man in a white smock came out from behind a row of cages, adamantly shaking his head. “No. No. You were here two days ago. Please…”
That was all I heard. Before Heather could respond with her irrefutable sales pitch, I was outside, in the front yard, vomiting.
Two down, forty-eight to go.
“I might be coming down with something,” I said on the way to our next stop, a pawnshop called Billerica Buy & Sell. “I’m gonna hang out here for this one, get some air.”
“Okay,” Heather said. She looked confused for a moment, then promptly turned on her heels and marched toward the pawnshop, determined to close the deal.
I walked to the corner and leaned against a mailbox. The noontime sun drilled into me. I peeled off my sport jacket and undid my necktie. My shirt was soaked. For a second I thought I would die right there, in Billerica, on a Wednesday afternoon.
A ’64 Chevy Impala convertible pulled up at the intersection. The driver was a muscular black man with a doo rag and sunglasses. He turned to me. I waved hello and smiled. He smiled back.
“You are one pathetic motherfuckin’ white man,” he said. “You have yourself a lovely day now.” The Impala drove off.
A few minutes later Heather walked out of the pawnshop. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Not interested,” she said. “Oh well. You wanna grab some lunch?”
“Where?” I said, wiping tears from eyes.
She shrugged. “McDonald’s?”
I convinced her to drive me back to the Championship Advertising headquarters. She was weary, citing the mid-day traffic as a potential hazard. I assured her there would be no traffic in that direction at this time of day. I was wrong. Construction had closed down two lanes and it took us an hour and forty minutes to get back to Woburn. With the return traffic, she wouldn’t be back in Billerica until the close of business. I apologized for the inconvenience and wished her luck, then slammed the door shut. She drove away, the tailpipe of her Honda Civic scraping the pavement behind her.
I never went back to Championship Advertising, and they never called. Something told me this kind of thing happened all the time.
* * * *
Today I sit in an air-conditioned office, one furnished with a computer and a phone. I call composers and tell them I need a music track, something “uplifting and approachable, but still unique and with a bit of an edge.” I make videos that depict a world where everybody smiles, where product is the hero, where flaws are retouched and where life casually coexists with glaring brand logos. I write commercials about people who feel great and look slim. I help sell the tools that will equip you for the happiest, most fulfilling life imaginable.
Is it like Mad Men? Not exactly, but it’s not terribly different, either. And that’s not the point, anyway. Make-believe is not a gauge for reality. I remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated and existential at work, those times when I regret leaving the movie business, or the disappointment I feel when I argue with a co-worker and our banter lacks the machine-gun tempo of All The President’s Men. The best we can hope for in this life is happiness. And the only gauge for happiness, like it or not, is misery.
So if you ever find yourself stranded in Billerica on a sweltering July day with a vicious hangover and no quarter, consider it an investment.
In the spring of 2012, after ten years of relative calm, I was hospitalized for a severe Crohn’s Disease flare-up. Who knows what brought it on, but the usual treatment of antibiotics, steroids and fasting was ineffective. The disease had gotten so bad, in fact, that parts of my colon sprung leaks, like a garden hose that’s been run over by a lawnmower. Bacteria had seeped out and formed an abscess inside my abdomen. Not the cute, pimple-sized abscess. This was an abomination, so big that it pressed against my stomach wall and leaked out through my belly button. One night I awoke to a shiny trail of pus running down my naval. “Nurse, is this normal?” I said, pulling back the sheet.
“Better it drains out of your body rather than inward,” she said, gently cleaning the area with a wet rag. “The last thing you need is blood poisoning.”
“Well, I can thank my lucky stars for that,” I said, watching the yellow syrup ooze down my stomach.
There was an inflamed ball of pus inside my belly, the size of a large grapefruit. And this wasn’t even the main problem.
“It’s complicated in there,” the doctor said, illustrating the mess on his notepad. “A large piece of your digestive tract has become tangled with the abscess, causing some obstructions.” This accounted for the excruciating pain, as well the nausea and the sickly green wax paper that passed for my skin. “See what I mean?” he said, holding up his sketch. It was illegible, just a circle with a bunch of angry slashes through it. My internal organs now resembled a kindergarten project drawn by a deeply disturbed child, one who spends her nights conversing with an unplugged television.
“At this point we’re looking at one option: removal of the entire area,” the doctor said, bracing himself for my emotional collapse.
He seemed surprised by my response. “How soon can we do it?” I said. At that point I would have let him cut off both legs and replace them with hockey sticks, if it meant I’d be any closer to a meal. I hadn’t digested solid food in two months. Every time I ate, the food got stuck in my colon and then burst through the intestinal wall, and then dripped down into the abscess. That flaming ball of pus, it turned out, was stealing all of my nutrients. The pain would soar, I’d spike a fever and then wind up back at the emergency room, where I’d gotten to know the entire staff on a first-name basis.
“Six weeks should be enough time for the area to calm down,” the doctor said. Operating before that, he explained, could pose a significant risk. In the meantime a line was inserted through my belly and into the abscess, puncturing it like a straw into a carton of milk. The abscess would siphon through the line and into a plastic bag that dangled freely by my side. The output was staggering: at first it was a half-gallon a day, this vile mixture of blood and bacterial tendrils. It looked like a side dish my mother made when I was a kid: stewed tomatoes thickened with chunks of Wonderbread. “I need a picture of this,” I said, searching for my phone. The nurse was a recent college graduate, trying to do things by the book, but she humored me and held the container of drained abscess next to her face, as though posing in a Woolite ad from the 1950s. I asked her to smile, then snapped a photo and sent it to my mom. “All we need are sliced hot dogs,” I texted.
Since eating was forbidden until after the surgery, a feeding tube was inserted into my chest. Two thousand calories a day pumped directly into a major artery. Add that to the drain in my stomach and the two IVs, one in each hand, and you have the torso of a human marionette. The doctors encouraged me to take walks around the hospital floor to regain stamina, but with all the wiring it was too complicated. Even reaching for the TV remote was an ordeal, so I happily considered that my daily exercise. “You need to get up and walk around,” my mom said, “or you’ll get bedsores.”
“Bedsores?” I said, shaking out my drain into the plastic container. “Please don’t bore me with your luxury problems.”
The doctors kept me for another two days, to monitor my temperature and make sure I responded to the IV nutrition. I spent that time sulking, imagining life without a colon. How would I cope with this? Surely no one else in history had dealt with such a thing, so I prepared myself by staging a make-believe press conference, broadcast live from my hospital bed. I acted out all the roles: me, Barbara Walters, old girlfriends who dabbed their eyes while regretting their lack of understanding. Even a few celebrities chimed in. “A true inspiration, a true American.” This from Denzel Washington, who, along with Axl Rose, presented me with an honorary Oscar for heroism. I graciously accepted the award and then dedicated it to the real hero: Matt Damon, for his fearless portrayal of me in the film.
To my surprise, life in the outside world carried on without me. I checked the news regularly, expecting to find my health updates on CNN. Instead I watched a different saga unfold. While I faced mortality from the luxury of a hospital bed, the real battle was happening in the streets of America. Thousands were united in defiance of insidious evil, an existential threat that crept into the fold of our great nation, sure to annihilate our way of life. It was called the Affordable Care Act.
The legislation had passed two years earlier, and the backlash was just then hitting a fever pitch. The news showed mobs of angry protesters intercut with politicians who publicly condemned the law as mortal sin. “This is real, folks, and the consequences will be felt for generations,” exclaimed one senator, his face trembling as he addressed the press corps. Judging from his delivery you would have thought an asteroid was hurtling toward earth. But he was talking about free mammograms, and that doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
I watched the coverage all day, taking breaks only to empty my assorted bedpans. As a courtesy to my roommate I kept the volume low and thus missed most of the talking points, but thankfully many of the protesters held signs, so I was able to piece together the overall message. It was simple: we don’t want government healthcare. This was not how the founders envisioned it when they drafted the Constitution, over two hundred years ago, a time when the entire population fit inside a barn and most illnesses were treated with leeches.
Among all the signs, the most common was “NOBAMACARE”. Some used the O from Obama’s logo; some used the classic circle with a line through it. Some used Obama’s face, but with big ears and brown fur drawn in to resemble a monkey. A step up from this was “OBAMACARE = OBAMA FASCISM”. It was stenciled onto a sandwich board propped beside a middle-aged gentleman who grilled steak tips on a hibachi. Remove the swastika from his t-shirt and he could have passed for any urban hot dog vendor. I admired him, not because of his political stance, but because he looked so well fed, what with his drooping stomach and barbecue sauce smeared on his lips. I wished I could have been there with him, fighting the fight, gnawing on an ear of buttery corn while pumping my fist in solidarity.
Elsewhere, an older gentleman held a sign that read “GRANDPA AIN’T PAYIN THE BILL”. I’m not sure what this meant, but I felt bad for his grandkids. Did they get this everywhere they went, even Pizza Hut? Next was a photo of a young woman with long braided hair. The camera slowly zoomed in on her sign, which read “UNINSURED BUT AT LEAST I’M FREE.” So that’s what this is about. Freedom, our God-given right. I swelled with emotion and imagined myself ripping the tubes from my body and marching into the street, in a hospital johnny and slippers, weighing 135 pounds, leaving behind a trail of slick pus. I wouldn’t last twenty minutes, but at least I’d be free.
I heard them loud and clear. Government healthcare was bad. Mandated healthcare was bad. Affordable healthcare was bad.
Two days later I was discharged. I sat in front of the hospital, in a wheelchair, waiting for my mom to pick me up. I hadn’t been outdoors in two weeks, so I closed my eyes, listened to the chirping birds and enjoyed the June sun against my pale face. This was what the protesters meant by freedom. The unbound, unencumbered vivacity of not having health insurance. Because the right to be uninsured is what makes this country great. Take it away, and then what? Gone is the rugged individualism. Gone is the desire to seek out new frontiers. With a healthcare mandate shackled around our necks we’re nothing but a flock of soulless factory workers, toiling under the government’s boot heel.
I spent the next six weeks at my mother’s house, resting up for the surgery, yet still the healthcare debate haunted me. Most of it came from Justin, who lived across the street and spent most of his life in the front yard, yelling at squirrels. Justin was unemployed and staunchly opposed to what he called “socialized medicine”, which, ironically, was healthcare designed specifically for him. “I’m not paying, and that’s final,” he said. “They can tax me, penalize me, whatever. The state cannot decide what’s best for me. Period, end of story.”
For Justin, it was a matter of principle. He would rather go to jail than have health insurance. I admired his passion, but wondered what he would do if he ever got sick. “I’d figure it out!” he said, now yelling. “If it was really bad, I’d go to the hospital, sure. But most things we can fix ourselves. That’s my point! We live in a nanny state, where we’re just these helpless little baby chicks that can’t do a goddamn thing without the government pampering us!”
Justin had been fired from his last four jobs. The most recent was a liquor store, where he stocked shelves. Before that he was let go from a telemarketing gig, selling vacation packages to strangers, a commission-based job that didn’t even pay an actual salary. Yet somehow he felt skilled enough to suture his own flesh wounds or reset a broken bone.
I told him I was conflicted on the issue. Part of me felt that universal healthcare was important, essential even, but the other part liked being free from tyranny.
“Well, for you, healthcare is probably a good idea,” he said, nodding at the catheter that dangled from my chest. “But when the government gets involved, that’s when things get scary. I mean, aren’t you the least bit worried?” He had just informed me of Obama’s newly commissioned death panels, which, according to him, were convening at that very moment, in a secret room hidden inside the earth’s core. Their job was to weed through files of sick and elderly people and decide who was worth keeping alive and who should be put out to pasture.
This seemed far-fetched. Even so, that evening I drafted a letter to the death panel, something to read in case I was called upon to defend my life. I gathered together documents: tax returns, a college transcript I found in the basement, and some little league clippings from the local paper that my mom had saved. Proof that I was a worthwhile American. I searched for anything else that could lend value to my existence. There was an 8x10 photograph of Telly Savales, pointing at the camera. The inscription, which was dated just after my birth, read: Who loves ya, Dannyboy! Best Wishes, Uncle Telly. I’m not sure how or why my father ended up with this picture, but he mentioned it at least once a month when I was growing up, as though it were a family heirloom I would one day inherit. I hesitated, then placed it in the folder, thinking an endorsement from Kojak certainly couldn’t hurt.
In the weeks that followed I made an effort to relax and watch less news, but when the day of my surgery arrived, I caved. On the drive to the hospital I listened to talk radio, where the topic—you guessed it—was Obamacare. The callers were enraged, like Steve-o from Quincy, who predicted that emergency rooms would soon become savage arenas, just like the movie Mad Max. “I’ll paint my face like an Indian and go in there with a baseball bat, you know, the kind with spikes on it, and be like ‘fix my friggin toe’. Right? That’s what it’s comin’ to.”
“That’s what it’s comin’ to,” the host echoed. “Let’s go to Barbie from Medford. Barbie, who’s gonna fix Steve-o’s toe? Not President Obama, not unless Steve-o’s on welfare.”
The next caller was a soft-spoken man who identified himself as Joseph from Andover. Immediately I placed him as a snob. No one goes by the proper “Joseph” anymore, at least not since the death of Christ. At first his argument made sense, with his insights on price control and Medicaid expansion, but he quickly veered into a theory that vaccinations were a form of mind control. This dovetailed into an apology for “something big that was going to happen”, and then the line went dead.
“God bless you, Joseph,” the host said, blithely. “Folks like you are what’s keeping this country honest.”
Given the hysteria, I expected the hospital to be abandoned when I arrived, the halls littered with dirty forceps while the doctors—those lucky enough to avoid capture—fled to Canada through an underground tunnel. But inside it was business as usual: polished floors, bustling professionals, the smell of stale Au Bon Pain coffee. In fact, it seemed more like a museum than a hospital. I’d never noticed the glass prisms high up on the ceilings. They shifted around almost imperceptibly, creating a subtle kaleidoscope reflection. In the center of the lobby was a twenty-foot granite sculpture, a bequest, according to the plaque, from the artist to the medical board of directors. The walls were decorated with text: short biographies of industry pioneers and their medical breakthroughs, things we take for granted today, like the stint, or the prosthetic limb. The entire building was a testament to science and knowledge, a pursuit so ingrained in our bedrock that no amount of political chatter could crack it.
In pre-op the nurse made small talk, as they often do to distract a patient when the needle enters a vein. “Yeah, the Sox definitely need a middle reliever,” I said, “but how about this whole healthcare thing? Seems like it’s all anyone talks about lately. I mean, how’s the surgeon feel about this? Is she bitter?” I thought of a story a friend recently told me about his house. He bought it on a short sale from the bank after they foreclosed on the original contractors, who ran out of money, two months before construction was complete. Rather than graciously handing over the keys, the contractors trashed the place, tore out electrical sockets, poured cement down the drains, and spray painted FUCK YOU and I BE BACK on the walls. How might a surgeon react if, moments before a procedure, he or she was told of a massive pay cut or an undermining new malpractice law?
“You have nothing to worry about,” the nurse said, assuring me that I was under the best care, in one of the best hospitals in the country, and that no one—not democrats, not republicans, not even Steve-o—could threaten the integrity of our healthcare system.
Immediately I felt relaxed. Nurses have that magic power, as did the twenty milligrams of Fentanyl and Valium that had just hit my nervous system.
I awoke from the surgery with a colostomy fixed to my abdomen. This would double as my anus for the next three months, after which time the surgeon would reattach the small intestine directly to my last few inches of viable colon. Outside of the medical world, this procedure is known crudely as “getting the bag”, which makes an already unpleasant situation sound trashy and even more humiliating, as if I had the choice to replace my broken intestine with a brand new model but instead went for the cheaper option. It also heightens the dread, referring to a complex apparatus by an everyday household name. Death row inmates take their last breath inside “the chair”. Medieval criminals were pulled apart in an intricate torture device known simply as “the rack.” Now I’d be wearing “the bag”, which, in spite of its medical ingenuity, sounds like a burlap sack worn over one’s head to publicly shame them.
A colostomy is actually more basic than it seems. While most organs have multi-faceted, interdependent functions, the colon is really just plumbing. And surgically it’s treated as such. My small intestine was diverted through my stomach like a runoff pipe—there it was, right out in the open, a curled tongue poking through my skin to catch some snowflakes. The bag itself was made of thin, durable plastic—nothing that couldn’t be purchased at any Home Depot. When empty it pressed flat against my waist, but as it filled—which it did four to six times a day—it bulged out like a bag of microwaved popcorn. At the bottom was a clasp. To unload the bag I’d simply undo the clasp and lean over some kind of receptacle. Ideally I’d use a toilet, but when that wasn’t available I disposed of my waste in any outdoor location. I tried to be discreet, but sometimes it’s hard when you’re on a busy commercial street, hugging a trashcan.
The bag was fixed to my abdomen with an adhesive gasket, no stronger than those felt pads that stick onto the bottoms of chair legs. Obviously it couldn’t be cemented onto my skin, but it was frightening how easily the thing peeled off. When the bag was empty, this wasn’t an issue, but the pressure mounted as the bag filled, and there was only so much the gasket could take. At least a dozen times my colostomy reached capacity and then ruptured and spilled down my leg. Usually this happened when my mind was elsewhere, those rare instances when I felt like a normal, healthy person, one without a bag of shit glued to his stomach. Fortunately the spills occurred beneath my clothes, and I learned to keep a stellar poker face, able to carry on any conversation without alluding to the fact that bile was trickling into my shoe.
Twice the bag burst while I slept. The waste was like corrosive acid, staining through the sheets and deep into the mattress of my mother’s guest bed. But even as I scrubbed the next morning, a bandana around my nose to curb the putrid smell, it was hard not to be grateful. Two months ago I couldn’t even stand up straight, and now I had the strength to clean a bile stain, and do so with vigor. Afterward I’d eat some scrambled eggs and toast without worrying if the food would get lodged in my gut. And then I’d take a walk, which was especially nice without that portable nutrition pump to lug around. After four months in and out of the hospital, chained to IVs, catheters and drains, I finally felt free. Just like the uninsured, I thought as I emptied my colostomy down a sewer grate on the side of the road.
In October of 2012 I had my follow-up operation, called the “reversal surgery”, where the colostomy is removed and the two ends of intestine are reattached. The first time I used my new, sleeker colon, I was nervous. It had been three months since I moved my bowels, and I didn’t know what to expect. I approached the toilet reluctantly, like a racecar driver getting back into his car for the first time since a near-fatal crash. The surgeon warned me that the sensation would be odd at first, and she was right. I felt an abrupt suction in my stomach, like those pneumatic tube systems that transport things throughout office buildings. Aside from that it was painless and satisfying, so much that when I finished, I leaned against the bathroom doorjamb and wept.
“I’m glad you made it through this, Danny,” Justin said in a dubious voice, implying that his happiness came with some conditions. “But imagine the care you would have received had you not been able to choose your own surgeon? What if you had to go with some kid fresh out of medical school because, I don’t know, he’s cheaper and in your network? You get my point now?”
Any doomsday scenario was possible, but I was tired of debating, so I shrugged and took a bite of my apple. Justin carried on about socialism while I slowly chewed, savoring the tartness, enjoying my newly functioning digestive system and quietly thanking the surgeon who repaired it. My theory on healthcare is simple: I need it. Beyond that, I don’t know how it works. I’m sure the system is flawed, but fixing it is beyond my comprehension. I can barely assemble a bed frame from Ikea.
I’m lucky that, for the last fifteen years, I’ve been covered through my employer. When I was hired, the HR rep gave me three choices, and I picked the most expensive without even reading the one-page summary of benefits. I’m not even sure how much my plan costs because it’s deducted directly from my paycheck. All I know is the bill for two colorectal surgeries and everything in between came to a hundred and sixty grand, of which I owed ninety bucks.
“You just wait,” Justin said. “Your premiums will go up, and your healthcare will be compromised. The only ones who benefit from Obamacare are the deadbeats.”
“Good,” I said, reminding him that I am one of those deadbeats, currently masquerading as successful, and that someday my charade will end. When that time comes I’ll be on my own, uninsured, or free, if you will. And who’s going to insure a loss leader like me? I can’t imagine many healthcare providers will be clamoring for my business. In free market terms, I’m a bad investment. But when you think about it, who isn’t? Nearly half of Americans have at least one chronic disease. One in three will get some type of cancer, and—here’s an alarming statistic—three out of every three will die at some point in their lifetime. In a perfect world we’d go like cats, or Yoda. Curl up on the bed, close our eyes and sail off peacefully to the hereafter. But we all know it doesn’t work like that. There are surgeries, and bedpans, and pacemakers, and counselors, and overpriced prescriptions. There are bronchial infections and fractured vertebrae and ruptured ovaries. You may think you’ll sidestep all that. You may say, “When it’s my time, I’ll go naturally.” Something tells me that when the end comes, though, we’ll all be grasping for that one extra breath.
* * *
In the fall of 2013, a year after my surgeries, I went back to the hospital for a follow-up colonoscopy. The procedure isn’t so bad if, like me, you enjoy sedation. Of course, since my colon is one-tenth the length of yours, it was over before I really started to enjoy the buzz. The results were good—no active Crohn’s Disease. Afterward I celebrated with a pizza and the nightly news. The lead story, once again, was the Affordable Care Act. Opponents of the law had tried to stall its funding with something called a filibuster. This sounds like a grooming device for dogs, one sold on television late at night, but it’s actually a key ingredient in today’s legislative process. In the standard filibuster, someone gets behind the podium and speaks for as long as possible. After six hours they drift into madness and recite anything that crosses their mind: song lyrics, grocery lists, what have you. That evening’s report showed a twenty-three hour filibuster. In the final hour the senator, still upright behind the podium, read Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham”, a last-ditch effort to sway the hearts and minds of the American people.
This is the damage that affordable healthcare has left in its wake. A grown man dressed in a suit and tie, reading children’s literature to an empty room.
One can only hope his insurance plan covers mental.
In September of 2006 I bought a condo in South Boston. This was before the housing market collapsed, when banks handed out mortgages to anyone with nine digits in their social security number. Back then “pre-qualified” meant you had a job, or at least imagined yourself someday having one. I had no money to put down, and my credit score was in the low 300s. I couldn’t even afford the closing costs; in fact, if memory serves, I received around $1500 in buyer credits when the deed was transferred. So, in effect, I was paid to own property in Southie.
Soon after I moved in The Departed was released and, seemingly overnight, South Boston was en vogue. Every viable square inch was harvested into condominiums. Old buildings were torn down and new ones sprouted from their ashes. “Luxury Housing”, their signs boasted, but from the outside they looked flimsy and homogenized, as though they were built from kits, the kind you might find advertised in the back of Parade Magazine. With their perfect angles and level floors, these modern structures seemed cold and lacked the charm of my sagging triple-decker.
My house had been around since the Great Depression, which might explain why I felt sad whenever I looked at it. The exterior was rotted and painted a yellow-brown disease color, jaundice perhaps, or maybe cirrhosis. Still, there was pride in owning something original. It entitled me to complain about the new construction. “It ain’t like it used to be around here,” I said to my neighbor, Johnny, a Southie local who spent his golden years chain-smoking on his front steps. Whenever I came home from work we’d commiserate. “The yuppies are coming in droves, Johnny,” I’d say, a rolled-up yoga mat hidden behind my back.
Johnny swore that no amount of money would drive him out. “Biz my buckin home,” he’d say, a cigarette in one hand and his upper teeth dripping from the other. While his friends and relatives cashed out and fled to the south shore, Johnny stood in defiance until he could stand no more. The official cause of death was prostate cancer, but I knew it was a lack of purpose that did him in. With the influx of security cameras and the decline in street crime, there wasn’t much need for old men who sat on their stoops all day, cursing at the world.
The locals weren’t the only ones displaced. The reconstruction also spurred an exodus of mice. Many sought refuge in my house, an obvious choice considering the rotted clapboard siding. At first I only heard them, whispering and plotting behind the drywall. I learned just how pervasive they were by the volume of their excrement. Every morning I found more droppings, like trails of caraway seeds, leading to the corners of my floor, my bookshelves, even my kitchen countertop. I sympathized with their basic need for food and shelter, but taking a dump on my soap dish seemed a bit unnecessary, not to mention disrespectful.
I hired an exterminator, the cheapest one I could find. I had expected someone resembling a Ghostbuster, a man or woman wearing goggles and a gray jump suit. Instead I got the discount version, a scruffy dude in his forties who reeked like an ashtray and introduced himself as “Steve”. The closest thing he had to a uniform was a knitted cap with a Patriots logo on the front. He had no weapon, no backpack, no rodent-detecting gadgetry, just a garbage bag filled with mousetraps, slung over his shoulder.
To me, setting traps means meticulously arranging a slipknot under a bed of leaves, or fastening a razor-thin tripwire across two trees. To Steve it meant tossing a cardboard box filled with poison behind my fridge. “The secret is keeping the place as clean as possible,” he said, handing me his invoice. I thanked him for his expertise and showed him the door.
The traps had little effect, if any. Apparently mice are like humans, in that both species tend to avoid coffin-sized boxes. Every morning I swept up more droppings, and every night I lay in bed, tormented by a chorus of squeaks and the marching of tiny feet. “Please God make it stop,” I’d whisper, covering my ears as I slipped further into delirium. I stuffed the cracks in the walls with S.O.S. pads, only to find them the following day shredded into flecks of steel or pushed neatly to the side. I even considered a laser device I saw advertised on TV. It plugged into a wall outlet, like a carbon monoxide detector, and emitted radio waves that triggered in the mice a suicidal impulse, like The Manchurian Candidate, prompting them to leap out the window to their death.
Nothing worked. I was outmatched. There were millions of mice in this city; trap five of them and the next day twenty more gnaw through the plaster.
Hopeless, I turned to the one person I could rely on in times of despair: my drug dealer. “You’re wasting your time with all that nonsense,” he said. “Only one thing can stop a mouse, and that’s a cat.”
It was so obvious I hadn’t even considered it. Still, I resisted. “Yeah, but then I’ll have a cat. A dog is one thing, but a single guy with a cat seems a little weird,” I said, forgetting that my only friend was a fifty-year old drug dealer who lived with his mom, and that I spent every Saturday night in his living room, taking painkillers and eating Elio’s Pizza.
“Nah. Cats are the best,” he said. “Don’t listen to anyone. They’re like miniature lions that patrol your house at night.”
“Really?” I said, scratching the skin off my legs while my heart rate ticked up to a thousand beats per minute. “That sounds awesome!”
The next day I took a handful of pills and drove to the animal rescue hospital. I knew if I were sober I’d have second thoughts, so I timed the drugs perfectly. They kicked in just as I approached the front desk. “I’d like to buy a cat,” I said through my gritted teeth. The vet looked at me warily and then led me to the feline kennels. I prepared myself for a heart wrenching experience, something out of Oliver Twist, all these poor cats sticking their paws through the cages, begging me to take them home. To my surprise, none of them seemed to care about the prospect of a warm home and unconditional love. Most of them faced away from me, and as I passed they lifted their heads off the cage floor and looked back in contempt, as though I’d interrupted something. “Can I help you?” their annoyed eyes said.
All ignored me except one. Near the end of the aisle was a kitten, pressed against the back of the cage, her paws and feet tucked under her body, making her look like a tiny loaf of cream-colored fur. Her head was motionless but her eyes were wide and flittering and terrified. “Can I see this one?” I said. The vet opened the cage and I held out my hands. At first the cat recoiled, but then she leapt into my arms.
“That’s Noel,” the vet said. “We named her that because she was brought in on Christmas Eve. Some nice man found her on his back porch, in Andover.”
I could feel every bone in the cat’s emaciated body, like a feathery sack of Popsicle sticks squirming against my down jacket. Finally she relaxed and looked up at me. A tiny head and big ears, and eyes so crystal blue they looked like matching bottles of aftershave.
“I’ll take her,” I said.
Noel was spayed and given the appropriate shots, and two days later I brought her home. She was drowsy from the anesthesia and had a neat square shaved into her belly from the surgery. I felt guilty leaving her alone at first, especially given the respiratory infection she caught at the shelter, so I stayed home as often as possible—a reasonable task given the light demands of my non-existent social life.
At work, while the 20-somethings recapped their drinking adventures and the 30-somethings gushed about their children, I updated people on my cat, who by then I’d renamed “Dixie”. “Well, her chest cold cleared up, and she’s finally taken to her wet food,” I’d say, unwrapping my burrito at the kitchen table. Soon Dixie was all my coworkers asked about. The general assumption was that I had no life or dating exploits to speak of, only the daily progress of a housecat.
“What’s up for the weekend, Danny? Hanging out with your cat?” This from Angela, an attractive young project manager.
“Yup,” I beamed.
Dixie demanded constant attention. She was content only when sitting on my legs, pinning me to my couch. If I went to the bathroom, she pawed at the door until I let her in. When I got out of the shower I’d find her lying face up on my bathroom rug, wagging her tail, waiting for a belly scratch. On the rare occasion I made a phone call, the cat became angry and confused, hearing my voice directed at something other than her. If the call lasted more than five minutes she would scratch the nearest piece of furniture while glaring at me. As soon as I set the phone down, she’d casually walk over and sit on it. Anything that took away my focus became a threat, so she began preemptively smothering things out of habit—books, laptop, TV remotes, car keys. I’d hear my text alert chime and see her belly glow as the phone lit up underneath it.
I couldn’t tell if the cat loved me, depended on me, or simply enjoyed toying with me. “Dixie, come here, come sit with me,” I’d say, pounding the sofa cushion. “Who’s a pretty girl? Come on, Dixie, come here.” But the cat would just sit upright on its hind legs, watching me, perfectly still. After five minutes of my shameless pleading, the cat would turn and walk away. Was she deliberating that whole time? Or had she no intention of jumping on the couch, and just felt like watching a grown man beg? Her demeanor was impenetrable yet calculating, and as time passed I came to not only love it, but to admire it. In a society filled with hurt feelings, the cat’s utter lack of emotion was refreshing.
Oh, and there was the mice. As soon as Dixie arrived, they vanished. Not a squeak, not a scurry. No climactic showdown, no negotiation. The cat’s presence alone had warded them off for good. I admired that, too.
Months turned into years, and with the exception of a couple brief romances, life consisted of my cat, my living room, and a menu of prescription drugs. By the summer of 2012 I was strung out on pills and hospitalized for an acute Crohn’s Disease flare-up. I’d whittled away to 135 pounds, living off IV nutrition and shitting into a colostomy bag. Yet the cat had doubled in size. Her neck disappeared into her shoulders, and her butt took on the ill-defined shape of a ham hock. When she walked her belly swung from side to side, as though she were a four-legged dinner bell. As my world grew smaller the cat got fatter, feeding not only on her wet food, but on my future as well.
One night I was curled up in a ball on my kitchen floor, detoxing from Xanax, when I heard glass shatter. I looked up and saw the cat, sitting atop my fridge, staring down at me. She had knocked an empty wine carafe onto the floor, sending bits of glass everywhere. My first instinct was to scream at her and then collapse further into my own self-pity, but something in her ice blue eyes stopped me. They were remorseless and deliberate, as if they said, “Yes, I broke that glass. Now stop crying and pick it up.”
Shaking from withdrawal, I got up and picked each shard of glass from the floor. The cat looked down from the fridge, making sure I got every last one.
That moment was my “white light experience”, as we call it in recovery. A month after the broken glass incident I checked myself into rehab. Two years later and I was in a serious relationship. It felt good, this healthy adult life, but with it came a nagging guilt. While I split my free time between AA meetings and a new romance, my cat was left home alone, confused, wondering why I wasn’t laying on the couch with a glass pipe resting on my chest.
When Amanda moved in, Dixie responded like she did with most visitors: by hiding under the bed, in a vigilant crouch, waiting for the person to leave. Two days later she finally came out, slinking low to the ground, sniffing and inspecting Amanda’s luggage. She looked up at me as if to say, “Did you have something to do with this?” I kneeled down to pet her and she screeched and pulled her head away, then squeezed her giant ass back under the bed.
After a couple weeks it was clear that Amanda was staying. Her bags were unpacked and she started redecorating, and soon the condo looked eerily like the home of two self-respecting adults. Gone were my personal touches, like the Nerf basketball hoop mounted on the bathroom door or the Batman action figure sitting on the television. “But they give the place character,” I protested, handing over my plastic AK-47 water gun. Furniture I’d owned since the nineties was brought to the sidewalk and replaced by sleeker, more contemporary models. “This has sentimental value, you know,” I said as we carried my high school bureau down the stairs, its ornate brass handles dangling from the drawers.
Dixie spent most of this transition period under the bed, though occasionally she’d come out for a cautious stroll, as though leaving a fallout shelter to survey the destruction. “Someone wants to say hello,” Amanda would say, giddily, unaware that the cat was not saying “hello”, but rather “I’m going to kill you in your sleep”.
“Hello, Dixie!” she said in that singsong tone people use with pets. “Aren’t you a pretty girl?” She bent down to pet her and the cat swatted at her hand and hissed, a whip-crack action similar to a cobra striking its prey. “Jesus!” Amanda jumped back, clutching her chest. “I think my finger’s bleeding,” she said. “Danny? I said ‘I think my finger’s bleeding’.”
I heard her, but my attention was on the cat, waiting for her response. She licked her right paw, sucking the DNA evidence from each claw, and then walked back under the bed. Doom welled up inside me as I thought, Oh no. This is just the beginning.
“She just needs some time to get used to this,” I said, knowing it would likely get worse before it got better.
The cat’s habits changed, a red flag for animals that are so firmly grounded in routine. She no longer slept at the foot of my bed and instead spent her nights camped out in the building’s main stairwell. I’d find her lying on the welcome mat outside the second floor unit. I’d call to her, but she wouldn’t even look at me. She just stared at my downstairs neighbor’s door, as though imagining a better life inside with a more subservient set of humans.
“I don’t think Dixie likes me,” Amanda said one morning as she showed me her new Marc Jacobs tote bag, the smooth black leather covered with scratch marks.
“She doesn’t like anyone. Don’t take it personally,” I said. Then I suggested she hang all of her belongings from hooks, just to be safe.
We consulted PetMD for advice on how to best integrate Dixie into a new household dynamic. The website listed “10 Things to Make Your Cat Feel Welcome”, small gestures that went a long way, such as “Give cat undivided attention as soon as you come home” and “Keep respectful distance when cat is moody”. Each item ended with “…and be sure to show them LOTS OF LOVE”. Absent from the list were the essentials, like food, shelter, and freedom from a cage.
Gradually, Dixie’s cool demeanor began to thaw. We’d be in the living room and the cat would saunter casually up to Amanda and sniff her. Whenever this occurred we both froze, as though hiding from a predator whose vision was based on movement. “Just let her do her thing,” I’d say, my lips barely moving. The cat would climb onto Amanda’s lap and knead into her leg, the nails of her front paws piercing through cotton sweatpants.
“That means she likes you,” I said. Amanda nodded, her jaw trembling from the pain.
Sometimes a cat is loving, sometimes distant and aloof. Some nights Dixie would flop down and roll on Amanda’s feet, other nights she’d hiss at her for coming within five feet of her domain. Cats are known for their peculiarities, so when Dixie began walking at a tilt and dragging her leg I chalked it up to her “trying out new footwork.” When she fell to the ground and began convulsing, I thought she was working on a new trick. “She’s just showing off,” I said, while the cat writhed on the floor in the kind of rapture one might find at a Pentecostal tent revival.
“That is not normal, Danny,” Amanda said. “We need to take her to the vet.”
“Nah, that’s how she plays around,” I said, watching the cat stagger off, her head drooped awkwardly to one side, her eyes vacant and disoriented, like a punch-drunk fighter.
According to PetMD and other animal care websites, cat seizures are fairly common and can stem from any number of causes. There is no remedy, except of course to show the cat lots of love.
These “spells” became regular, occurring every two months or so. I’d put on a brave face and reassure myself that the cat was fine, but I couldn’t help think that these seizures came from a deeper place. In my own melodramatic narrative, they were induced by the stress and anxiety of losing me to someone else. I couldn’t tell Amanda this, but I did occasionally mumble things whenever I passed her, incoherent non-sequiturs like “Happy now?” or “Cat murderer.”
One morning in June, Dixie had a bad episode. I only caught the aftermath: her walking across my living room, lopsided, her left leg dragging behind her like a wooden peg. In the past she’d gradually straighten out, but this time her gait seemed to get worse, like she was winding down, the movie hero who’s been shot and crawls to the enemy stronghold out of sheer will. We brought her to the animal hospital where she underwent a series of blood tests and an ultrasound. “Possibly a stroke,” the vet said, “but it could also be a swelling of the brain, caused by a tumor.” The only way to know for sure would be an MRI, which would bring the total cost of this visit to $4,500.
“We’ll need to talk this over,” I said, and we brought Dixie home. When I opened the carrier door she limped her way under the bed, where she remained that night, her ice blue eyes staring out from the darkness, fearful and ashamed.
According to the vet, Dixie’s condition would either get better over the next few weeks, or get worse. Improvement meant her seizures could be congenital, whereas decline confirmed something severe. I studied the cat closely those first few days, looking for positive signs. She mostly hid under the bed and came out only to eat and go the bathroom. When she walked, that stiff hind leg no longer dragged but overstepped, as though it was moving over something large while the other three carried on normally. Although it looked grotesque, I viewed it as progress. Any positive change in her attitude, however subtle, gave us hope. We rejoiced when she started licking her paws again, and that first time she wagged her tail—more like dragged it from left to right, once—Amanda and I held each other in celebration. “She’s gonna make it,” Amanda said, wiping away tears.
I was cautiously optimistic and still considering the alternate outcome, preparing myself, you might say. If the cat had something seriously wrong with her, how far would I go to save her? The testing alone would cost close to five grand, and then there was the treatment. Not to mention the physical and emotional toll it would take. It was a chore just to feed her heartworm pills, how would she respond to chemotherapy? Even if I could save her, buy her another three or five years, should I? Is it my place to interfere with the course of life? How is an animal’s life any more or less valuable than my own? I took long walks and deliberated the existential implications. But really, it came down to the money.
Dixie’s follow-up was on a stormy Sunday morning in mid-September. While I waited to check in a young couple came in pushing their dog on an industrial-sized dolly. I wasn’t sure the breed but it was big, which made its agony seem all the more palpable. She whined softly with her eyes closed, her belly protruding out. An intestinal issue, probably. A vet rushed out to meet them and wheeled the dog into the ER while the couple stayed behind. The woman cried. The man was stoic, but he wiped away tears and then covered his eyes while he wept. I had to bite my lip and close my eyes or else I would have wept, too.
By the time I reached the intake desk the vet came back out to update the couple. She asked for permission to use the defibrillator if the dog slipped into cardiac arrest. The couple cried harder. I tried not to listen. My palms began to sweat, my breathing grew short and my teeth got a numbing sensation. I blinked away tears.
I went back to the cat waiting area, where Amanda sat next to the carrier, comforting Dixie in a soothing voice. Next to us, in the canine waiting area, was a man, early sixties. He was dressed for construction type work, with a Carhartt jacket and a baseball hat, so I assumed the pickup truck out front was his, the one with SULLIVAN WOODWORK stenciled on the side door. I saw no wedding ring on his hand and wondered if he was single, if all he had was his dog, and now maybe the dog was old and near the end. My mind often goes to the worst-case scenario. It’s not that I wish ill upon people. Sometimes I just look for sadness.
“Dixie Pellegrini?” the intake worker called out to the waiting area. It was the first time I’d heard my cat’s first and last name together, which was cute, but also creepy. It made me think of my cat dressed in a suit, sitting in a probate lawyer’s office, arguing over the details of my will.
The neurologist was a pleasant man dressed in a sweater vest, collared shirt, jeans and penny loafers, an ensemble that struck the perfect balance between brain doctor and house pet. This made me comfortable and confident in his abilities. He examined Dixie in a non-scientific way, by watching her walk and then moving his finger slowly back and forth across her eyes. “She hasn’t got any worse, and that’s very good news. To me that says that her issue is congenital, not degenerative. She was probably born with a defect in her brain, and her spasms are simply her way of adapting. In a way, they’re like growing pains.” He ruled out a stroke or brain tumor and deemed any further testing unnecessary. In his opinion the cat should live a long, happy life. “She won’t be doing any Sudoku puzzles though,” he said. A dumb joke, but I laughed all the same.
On the way out, I stopped at the front desk to pay. The bill was $450. “For a follow-up?” I said.
“It’s neurology,” the intake worker explained with a shrug. Yes, neurology: the science of moving your finger back and forth in front of a pair of eyes.
I got my receipt, picked up the cat carrier, and Amanda and I walked to the door. As we passed the waiting area the man in the Carhartt jacket argued with one of the veterinarians. The vet spoke quietly, trying to calm him, but the man was loud, reminding her that he paid eleven hundred dollars and he demanded to see his dog. His surly voice cracked with a timbre of fear and desperation, as though arguing against the tide of inevitability. That will be me someday, I thought. Whether it’s with the cat, or something else. That time when I have to let go, move on, but simply cannot.
Dixie has not had a spasm since. She is still moody as ever—one moment she’s curled up on my lap, purring; the next she has a claw hooked into my neck. When I call for her she ignores me, yet once I hunker down to write or read she will sit on my laptop or swat the book out of my hand. If those efforts are unsuccessful she will stand next to me, stubbornly, meowing, blowing into my face a horrid blend of plaque, bile and canned salmon.
Her placid moments are what I find most fascinating, particularly when she sits on her hind legs in an unusual spot and looks around. Her neck and head move in a jerky fashion, almost animatronic, and her eyes still flitter left to right, bewildered, as though she’s caught in a state of sudden awareness. The neurologist says this is normal, a consequence of her congenital brain defect. She is not in pain, is not even aware anything is amiss. This is how she adapts. How she grows. How she compensates for a missing prefrontal lobe, or, say, a new person sleeping in her bed. Animals are resilient creatures, perhaps because they’re not accustomed to self-pity. Fear of change is normal, but any living thing is capable of adapting. The old-timers in South Boston. The mice in the walls. The forty-year old who sells his condo and moves to the suburbs. We hang in there and come out stronger on the other side. There is no special prescription or remedy that makes it easier for anyone.
Except, of course, lots of love.
A few years back I was having lunch with a friend, trying to lift her spirits after a breakup. The relationship hadn’t lasted long, maybe a couple months, but she was excited about it, certain it was headed for marriage. Then out of nowhere the guy stopped calling, and my friend was devastated. Were this an isolated incident she may have taken it in stride, but as she saw it, this was yet another in a string of doomed romances, once again proving that she would never find love. “He was perfect,” she said, wiping the corners of her eyes. “Now what am I going to do?”
She picked through her salad and shook her head. “I need a change. Maybe a new job.” She looked out at the Charles River. It glistened red in the autumn sunlight while a fleet of scullers rowed by. “You know what the problem is? This city. There’s nothing here. It’s time I move to New York.”
I asked what she intended to find in New York that was missing from Boston. Her response was thoughtful and precise: “Everything.” I pressed for at least one specific. “Gee, I don’t know. How about art?” she said, inferring that I must be a rube to ask such a thing. In the six years I’d known her she’d never once shown an interest in art, much less mention it in a sentence. Now it was a vital part of her personal growth.
This is a common sentiment among many of my friends. When life fails to satisfy them, they blame Boston, and then declare New York the answer to all of their troubles. In A.A. we call this a geographic, the idea that people can locate happiness on Google Maps and then just up and leave their worries behind, like an unpaid cable bill. “I figured if I moved somewhere warm I could quit drinking and start over,” said one alcoholic, “but in hindsight, maybe Miami wasn’t the best choice. I heard they had great A.A. down there. Guess what? They also have great cocaine.”
Of course, there’s no denying that New York is in a class entirely its own. I just don’t believe it’s capable of nourishing my soul in some extraordinary way. “You can get anything you want at any time of day,” proclaims one friend. Since I no longer indulge in drugs and alcohol, I’m forced to wonder what else besides mini blinds I could possibly need at four in the morning. A grilled cheese? A 24-hour poetry reading? Tickets to Hamilton?
Maybe I’m biased. And bitter. Between 2000 and 2010 I had three serious relationships, all of which ended with the woman moving to New York. In each one I saw similar behaviors: the restlessness, the dissatisfaction, the vacancy in their eyes as they stared out of restaurant windows, a look that said, Help. I’m trapped in an Ihop on route 128. Perhaps it was the type of partner I looked for: chic, sophisticated, unimpressed. More likely, though, it was my own hokey brand of entertainment. “Really, when was the last time you played shuffleboard?” I’d ask on our way inside the local American Legion hall. These girlfriends would spend an entire afternoon getting ready, penciling their eyebrows and pulling on knee-high boots, only to find themselves an hour later crammed into the back of a wagon, bumping along the dirt path of a haunted hayride, somewhere in rural Massachusetts.
My wife has a twin sister who lives in New York, and last year we went down for a visit. The trip wasn’t until mid-December, but since both Amanda and her sister are meticulous planners, the itinerary was drafted in late September. “Sarah wants to make a dinner reservation for Saturday night,” Amanda said, referring to ten Saturdays from now. “What will you be in the mood for?” I told her it was hard to guess my appetite a full season in advance, but steak was probably a safe bet.
For the next month I was inundated with possible things to do while in New York. Each morning Amanda would pass along ideas from her sister. Whenever I chose something it only led to a submenu. “Museum sounds great,” I’d say, and then the next day I was faced with a dozen types of museum, from industrial design to modern art to the science and history of cable news. After two weeks we finally arrived at a decision. There had been so much deliberation by that point I had forgotten where we started or how we ended up with an exhibit called “Lightrock: A Journey Through the Art of Soapstone.”
I thought it would be charming to take the train down, until I discovered the cheapest fare was $600 per person. Maybe New York is a magical place, I thought, considering that same amount could get me a round trip plane ticket to Ireland. We opted to drive instead. And rather than take my Jeep Wrangler, with its torn canvas roof and constant puddle of rainwater on the floor, I rented a mid-size sedan. “For comfort,” I reasoned. From the outside the Dodge Dart looked just that, but when I got behind the wheel my head pressed against the roof. “No big deal,” I said, pulling out of the lot. This positivity lasted until we reached the highway, at which point the car’s steady vibration began transmitting into my skull. Eventually my teeth started grinding and my vision blurred so I slouched down and drove the remaining distance with the wheel lodged between my knees. This was the comfortable option, steering a go-kart across a hundred and fifty miles of interstate.
At nine we arrived at Sarah’s apartment, a two-bedroom in lower Manhattan that she shared with her boyfriend, Tito. The décor was carefully curated, everything an original, from the antique cookie jars to the vintage circus poster to the collection of nude Frankart figurines positioned atop the Danish credenza. “Mid-century modern,” as Sarah put it, as opposed to my condo in Boston, a style that most interior decorators would call “big box”.
In their living room, a wall of shelves boasted an eclectic range of books and records. I scanned the titles and smelled the mildew scent of authenticity. The records were mostly old bluesmen, names like Big Bill Broonzy and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, artists I’d never heard of because my knowledge of music history only went as far back as Depeche Mode. I felt ashamed of my own wannabe record collection at home, all reissued classics I ordered from Amazon, shamelessly on display in the hopes I’d be mistaken for a serious music lover.
The four of us unwound in the living room, snacking on cheese and crackers and listening to Jackie Gleason’s Christmas on the record player. The soothing nostalgia, along with the merciless building-controlled heat, lulled me to sleep, and the next thing I knew Amanda was shaking me awake. “Get ready. We’re meeting some friends for a late dinner.”
“Now?” I said, checking my watch and brushing crumbs off my shirt.
In New York, late dinners start at midnight, so by the time our entrees arrived I was asleep on Amanda’s shoulder. When the check finally came I felt a boost of energy, the same tingle I experienced as a drug addict, whenever a dealer texted me that he was ten minutes away. That meant good things were coming, and in this case the good thing was unconsciousness. I imagined myself back at the apartment, stretched out on the sectional couch, plunging into a deep and rewarding sleep, the kind that comes after one has been folded into an economy-size car for five hours.
Tito suggested the group return to the apartment for a nightcap, a term I hadn’t heard since I Dream of Jeannie. In the traditional nightcap, booze is just a prop, something to occupy the hands while people trade vacation stories. As a former addict I’m used to the reverse dynamic, where people are the props and drugs are the occasion. I don’t mind partying late so long as I’m alone and properly fueled with substances.
At 2:30 the nightcap was still in full effect, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Each time I started to fade a burst of laughter woke me up. It was like being inside a TV sitcom and hearing the live studio audience every two minutes. Finally I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I thought if I splashed some cold water on my face, brushed my teeth and curled up in the bathtub for a quick power nap, I might make it all the way to the end of the party. Or sunrise, whichever came first.
Like much of Tito’s style, his bathroom was vintage and well maintained, a cross between an army latrine and an old-timey barbershop where politicians go for afternoon shaves. A far cry from my bathroom at home, where the trashcan overflows with toilet paper rolls and the floor is littered in yellowish Q-tips. Here all products were stashed away, except for a bar of black soap that looked like a piece of charcoal sitting in a porcelain dish, and three ambiguous bottles of men’s tonic that dated back to a time before labels were invented. I opened the medicine cabinet, expecting to find a tube of midcentury modern toothpaste, but something else caught my attention—a prescription bottle filled with oxycodone, at eye level on the middle shelf.
My heart raced. I closed the cabinet and backed away, feeling the wall behind me for support. It was as though I’d stumbled upon kryptonite; the very presence of the painkillers weakened me, and yet the only antidote would be to pop off the lid and swallow four of them. I’d then return to the party engaged and invigorated, delighting the room with my own vacation tales, like that one time, in 1986, when my family drove to Washington D.C. “But seriously, have you ever tried astronaut ice cream?” I’d say, offering my critique of the aeronautics museum while the group brayed with laughter.
In the old days I would have taken those pills without any pause or ethical consideration. It didn’t matter that they belonged to someone else, someone who had opened his home to me and was thoughtful enough to stock his fridge with those little glass bottles of Coke that I love. That the pills were prescribed to him, possibly for something serious, was irrelevant. He could have had an impacted tooth or a fractured vertebrae, but I was a junkie, therefore I needed them more. Broken bones and surgical procedures mend with time, but for a drug addict like myself, the pain of sobriety is unbearable and endless.
In recovery, the old days are never truly in the past. The demon always stirs somewhere below the surface. At that moment I was tired and cranky, ripe conditions for a relapse. There is an emergency protocol for situations like this. First, call your sponsor. If he or she doesn’t answer, call someone else. Keep calling. If you can’t get anyone on the phone, go to a meeting. If neither A or B are options because it’s three in the morning, drop to your knees and pray for a miracle.
But it was too late. I had made up my mind. I reached for the pill bottle and unscrewed the cap.
“God help me,” I said, staring into the bottle of Altoid-shaped pills, about to throw away two years of sobriety. I reached for a pill when I was stopped by a peculiar sensation, like I was being watched. I looked out the window above the bathtub and saw the adjacent apartment building. A light was on inside its window, and a silhouetted figure looked out at me. It was eerie and thrilling, like a Hitchcock film. I stepped into the bathtub for a better look, but the figure moved away. The rational part of my brain knew that the figure was just a voyeuristic neighbor, but the smaller part, the one that subscribed to divine interventions, knew it had to be something else.
With my shaking hands I screwed the cap back onto the bottle and returned it to the medicine cabinet. Then I took a deep breath, splashed water on my face and went back to the living room. The guests were saying goodbye. Fifteen minutes later I was on the couch, sinking into sleep.
The next morning I woke up at my usual time: three hours before anyone else. I tiptoed out the door to search for a coffee shop, someplace where I could chomp my Nicorette gum and slurp a hot beverage without waking anyone. Also, I feared Tito’s bathroom. I had survived the previous night’s encounter, true, but that unguarded bottle of painkillers tormented me like the telltale heart. I waited at the coffee shop until Amanda called, notifying me that everyone was up and discussing the plan for the day.
First on the agenda was brunch at a Moroccan restaurant. This seemed like an odd choice. I’ve always thought the first meal of the day should be lazy and comfortable, someplace where orange juice is served in plastic sippy cups and the patrons wear slippers and pajama bottoms. Morocco doesn’t seem like a place of comfort, but rather a place where spies hideout in underground casinos. I don’t picture French toast and Sunday newspapers; I picture tuxedos, filterless cigarettes and swords with curved blades. Still, Sarah spoke highly of it. “It has the most incredible avocado toast,” she raved. So we walked forty minutes there, passing two-dozen bagel shops along the way.
The avocado toast was delicious, but the table arrangement was unforgivable. In an effort to pack in as many people as possible and violate every known fire code, rows of tables were joined side by side, eliminating any privacy and instead forcing us to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. I couldn’t hear anything from our table but followed along clearly with the conversation next to me: two well-dressed socialite women engaged in a complaining match. Nothing was satisfactory—their eggs were too crisp, their husbands too meek, their literary agents too demanding. The instant they finished their meals they waved cash in the air and called out for the server. This was New York as I imagined it—a Mecca of criticism, cash, and constant disapproval.
Next on the itinerary was the Central Park Zoo. The walk there was short but arduous. We were swallowed by a crowd of tourists and forced to trudge along at the speed of a chain gang. Take out the taxis and the hot dog vendors and it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic film, this herd of tired refugees in search of water. My claustrophobia grew and soon I heard the sound of the beating heart in Tito’s bathroom. If only I’d pocketed some of those pills, I thought, then everything would be euphoric. Instead of a walking zombie I’d be annoyingly chatty, making pointless comments about whatever crossed my mind. “Who actually invented the sidewalk?” “Is December usually this mild?” “Did you ever go through a jogging phase?”
As it were, I began to view the entire trip through a begrudging lens, an outlook that was validated once the four of us got lost in Central Park. “If the sun is over there, isn’t east that way?” Sarah said, her hand cupped over her eyes. It was 2015, in the most industrialized city in the western hemisphere, and somehow we’d been reduced to the same navigation technique used by Lawrence of Arabia. Tito and Sarah debated the directions while I drifted off to feel sorry for myself. This is why people shouldn’t leave their homes, I thought.
Sarah and Tito settled on the correct course, and we continued our journey. I lagged behind the group, head down, hands jammed into my coat pockets. It’s hard for me to notice when I’m visibly sulking, but the amount of embarrassment on Amanda’s face is usually a good indicator. She dropped back and took my elbow. “What is your problem?” she snarled. “Why do you have to act so miserable?” I kicked a pebble and pulled my elbow away. She grabbed it again. “Find a meeting. Please.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I don’t want to ruin everybody’s good time.”
“You already are. Find a meeting today or go back to Boston.” She sped up and rejoined the others, leaving me behind to scowl and stamp my feet along the concrete path.
It’s always awkward when Saturday night dinner plans need to change to accommodate an AA meeting, but Sarah understood, even though she had made our reservation two months ago. She called a few different restaurants and secured some new options, reopening a number of possible scenarios, each one contingent upon the time and location of my meeting: 5:00 PM in the East Village. “That rules out the steakhouse in Brooklyn,” she said, and though there wasn’t a hint of resentment in her voice, I still felt like an asshole, moseying through Central Park while my friends rescheduled their lives based around my drug problem.
I felt a little better once we got to the zoo. If anything can get me out of my own way it’s an exotic animal, especially one trapped in a cage for the rest of its unnatural life. Each exhibit brought a new emotion. First was joy at the sight of a sea lion playing patty cake with its trainer. Then tears as a mama bear led her cubs through a diorama of an Alaskan forest. Most impressive were the two snow leopards, lumbering over a mound of fabricated rock. One of the leopards sat proudly on a perch, chest puffed out as he glared down at us with eyes like ice blue marbles. It was a condescending look, but could you blame him? He’s a jungle cat living in midtown Manhattan, in an apartment that would easily go for twelve grand a month.
Afterward, Amanda, Sarah and Tito went home to get ready for dinner, and I set off for my meeting. I get nervous about new places, so I reminded myself to keep an open mind and walk through my fears. This came in handy once I got to the East Village, where thousands of raging Santa Clauses frolicked through the streets—an annual event known as “Santa-Con”. Normally I love Santa Claus, so long as he’s plump and rosy-cheeked. But when a young person wears the costume it makes Santa look skinny and unhealthy. It doesn’t say joy to the world. It says my fond childhood memories are riddled with disease. A malnourished Santa is a frightening sight, especially when a stampede of them chases you down the street, their beards twisting off their faces.
I was sweating and out of breath when I got to my AA meeting, which was held inside a converted storage closet on the top floor of a narrow brownstone. Had the building originally been a residence I imagined this was where the mutant son was kept, chained to the radiator and fed from a bucket of spoiled beef. Now the room was occupied by a handful of sad adults, sitting as far away as possible from each other, quietly chewing their fingernails, looking vaguely ashamed that at age forty they still hadn’t quite gotten the hang of life. I was about to turn around and leave when a man asked for my name.
“Danny?” I said, as though it was a wild guess.
“Hello Danny, I’m Luther,” the man said. He got up from behind a desk and handed me a binder. “Could you chair tonight’s meeting?”
“Of course,” I said. The chairperson sits at the head of the room, reads the group’s preamble, and then shares his or her own story for twenty minutes. It happened so quick I didn’t have time to think of an excuse, nor did I feel that spasm of fear that normally racks my body at the thought of public speaking. I accepted the binder and sat down behind Luther’s desk, feeling like the teacher of a poorly funded adult education class. When the clock hit 5:00 I said good evening and read the statement of intention. Then I moved the binder aside, clasped my hands together on the desk, took a deep breath and told my story, starting at age seven, with my incessant need for solitude, and ending with the prescription drugs in Tito’s medicine cabinet, that until that moment had cast a malignant spell over everything.
By the time I finished only three people remained in the room, one of which was snoring.
Even so, I felt lighter after the meeting, like I had just purged a full day’s worth of self-pity. What a bizarre and wonderful thing: walking into a strange place, baring your ugliest truths to a group of random people and then walking back out and rejoining life. The therapeutic value of an AA meeting has never failed me. Even when I sit in the back row, disengaged, so bored that I read financial news on my phone, I still leave humbled, no longer the center of my own world, but instead just a visitor. I don’t know how or why this works. The dynamic is too simple for the intellectual community. There is no psychoanalysis, no self-knowledge, no one to blame. You come and talk, or listen, and then you leave.
On my way to dinner I stopped inside a secondhand boutique called Search & Destroy. Well, this is one thing they don’t have in Boston, I thought as I passed a photo book propped next to the register, open to a spread of a woman giving a blowjob to a Rottweiler. I nodded and smiled at the girl behind the register. She stared back and said nothing, though her t-shirt reading FUCK OFF SLUT spoke volumes. I looked around for used CDs, or anything music-related, but the inventory consisted mainly of gasmasks, dildos and old military uniforms. Was this a specialty store? If so, then for what? Maybe the store itself was a token of postmodernism, and twenty-four hours in New York had cultured me enough to appreciate that. Ah yes, I nodded, browsing a display of dog collars with SS insignias stenciled on them. This was exactly what the art world had been lacking, the crossroads of Nazism and bestiality.
Dinner was at Jules, a subterranean French bistro on St. Mark’s Place. “I’ve been meaning to come here for the longest time,” Sarah said, eyeing the wine list. We started with a plate of mussels, a savory appetizer that was cut short when a cockroach crawled out of the white wine broth and ran across the table. “Oh my God it’s headed for my coat!” Sarah shrieked while Tito tried to capture it with his table linen. Amanda pleaded with us not to make a scene, for the sake of the other diners. This is challenging when four people are suddenly in the middle of the dining room brushing each other off.
The manager apologized profusely and moved us to a new table, on the other side of the restaurant, where cockroaches apparently weren’t allowed.
“Could we also get some new waters?” Tito asked. “I don’t mean to be difficult, but…” He held his glass up to the light and the water was indeed murky, so much floating debris it looked like a snow globe that had just been turned upside down.
From that point on the service was prompt and attentive, but the damage had already been done. The meal was tainted by insects and lead-infused drinking water. When the entrees arrived we all stared at them with our best poker faces, tepid and fearful of what might live inside the meat.
At first I saw it as poetic justice. Earlier I had suggested we get dinner at the burger joint down the street from their apartment, but that was dismissed as boring, evidently lacking the kind of joie de vivre a scampering cockroach provides. But to say “I told you so” would be gloating, and life isn’t about my personal victories or defeats. In fact, life isn’t about me at all. I’m just a visitor, grateful for the invitation. If AA has taught me anything it’s that selfishness is a heavy burden, while service to others provides a more immediate and liberating high. In my experience this has always proven to be true, yet still I forget it, every day.
“I’m freaked out, too,” I said to Sarah, angling to make eye contact. Her face was stony and pale, her eyes fixed on her plate of untouched food. “I hate bugs. Seriously, I’d rather see a rat run into the kitchen.” She nodded, though it was clear she was still disturbed. I smiled. “We’ll stop and get a pizza on the way home.”
The manager dropped off the check and told us the drinks were on the house. This might sound generous but we only had two glasses of wine, which amounted to twenty bucks—less than the cost of the roach-infested mussels, which somehow remained on the bill.
Our first inclination was to leave a poor tip, but we decided the server shouldn’t suffer, so we agreed on twenty percent. “Let’s just get out of here,” Sarah said. “I want to go home, get into my pajamas and forget any of this happened.”
That one sentence summed up my entire life, and an hour later we were sitting on the floor of Sarah and Tito’s living room, wrapped in blankets, eating pizza and watching Suits on the sixty-inch television. We laughed and talked about movies and music and other things, things that existed a million miles away, things we could comment freely on from the safety of a dark living room. Aside from the TV, the only light came from the Christmas tree, around which hung a string of 1950s bubble lights that Tito discovered in a SoHo antique store. They made a soft buzzing sound and smelled faintly of ozone, and probably emitted a toxic level of radiation, but their twinkling red and green glow was cozy and soothing and worth the potential health risk.
“Another Coke, Danny?” Tito said from the kitchen. I thought for a moment and said sure. There’s a ton of sugar in there, and God knows what other corrosive substances, but the bottles were only eight ounces, and technically I was on vacation. The building-controlled heat was putting me to sleep, and the caffeine would help counteract that. I wanted to stay up all night. This was the highlight of the trip, the four of us, lounging in our pajamas, laughing about the misadventures of the day. We could have been anywhere in the world. We just happened to be in New York.
I got up and opened a window, and poked my head out into the city. The cold air felt good. It made me appreciate the warmth from inside even more.
The Greater Fool
November 28, 2016
Of all the people I met during my first year in advertising, the most memorable was the guy who watered the office plants. His name was Phil, and though he only showed up twice a week he upstaged everyone, even the creative directors. You could walk into the lobby wearing a Burberry top hat and a snow leopard around your shoulders, but if Phil happened to be nearby pruning an orchid, you might as well be invisible. Nothing could outshine his mullet, skintight black jeans and gleaming white sneakers. It was an ensemble that screamed fearlessness, and screamed it in a crude Boston accent.
Other maintenance people tiptoed around the employees, avoiding eye contact as they fixed printers or installed recessed lights. But Phil made his presence known. He carried his watering can into closed-door meetings, made small talk with anyone he passed in the halls, and sometimes offered his opinion on the creative that hung from the studio wall, pointing his garden trowel at his favorite ad layouts. “You know what commercials I like?” he’d say, looking around for a response. “The ones with the lizard, you know, that lizard who drives the car. You guys make those?” Phil seemed oblivious to the barrier that existed between him and us, the invisible wall that we tastemakers had erected, protecting us from mass channel shoppers.
I on the other hand was keenly aware of that invisible wall. In those early days I kept to myself mostly, eating lunch at my desk, pretending to work but really just staring at the Yahoo home page while I chewed my food. Since the rest of the staff were either upstairs in the kitchen or eating offsite, I used the time to listen to CDs on my iMac. Our office PA system played music throughout the day, but it was mostly contemporary soft rock, artists like David Gray or Train. These were what radio stations referred to as “adult pop” or “easy listening”, the kind of music one might hear in a doctor’s waiting room, something to soothe the nerves before an invasive genital procedure. It had the opposite effect on me, though. Rather than a sense of calm, or joyousness, I experienced nausea, followed by vertigo, followed by severe depression. The only antidote I found was thirty minutes of my own music, somewhere in the middle of the day.
One particular afternoon I was at my desk, eating a tuna melt and listening to the British metal band Judas Priest, when I heard a voice from inside my office.
“Mercenaries of Metal tour, ’88, Worcester Centrum. 12th row center. I was there.”
I looked up from my computer and saw Phil, trimming the spikes from my window orchid.
“That was the last time Dave Holland played with the band,” he said, pointing a spray bottle at the orchid and blasting each leaf with a cloud of mist. “Which is fine if you ask me, because he was an asshole, but that’s when the band started to fall apart.” He stepped back and examined the plant for a moment. “Still, they played ‘Sinner’, which they hadn’t played since ’84. It was almost like they knew the end was coming so they went back to the set list from the ‘Killing Machine’ era.”
I wasn’t familiar with the ‘Killing Machine’ era, nor did I have a clue who Dave Holland was, but I understood Phil’s language. I spoke it fluently in my youth, a time when my bedroom walls were covered in cutouts of men in spandex and eye makeup, a time that, for Phil, had extended well into his thirties.
He went on about Judas Priest for another twenty minutes, becoming more passionate as he detailed their rise and fall. “By 1988, everything was synthesizers. Look at the intro to ‘Blood Red Skies’, for Christ’s sake. Tell me that doesn’t sound like Tears For Fears!” Coworkers passed by my office, gawking at Phil as he leaned over my desk, his hand gripping the garden trowel, his mouth foaming with white spit. “Marketing!” he said. “It’s all goddamned marketing!”
“Totally,” I said, noticing the framed print ad that hung on the wall behind his head.
“It’s a fucking trade-off, plain and simple,” he huffed, returning to the orchid. He sprayed it some more, primping the leaves between each misting. This made him look like a hairstylist, practicing on a houseplant. “You wanna sell records, you gotta sell out,” he said, shaking his head.
I sensed a deeper resentment in Phil’s tone, so it came as no surprise when he told me about his own band, Black Angel. Their high point came in ’91, when they opened a few dates for the progressive metal group Dream Theater. “Rock bands have a small window of opportunity,” he said. “You either crack the ceiling and keep climbing, or you slide back down the other side of the hill.” I’d heard those exact words before, maybe in a Motley Crue song, and I wondered how much of our conversations were stolen from various 80s power ballads.
Every Monday and Thursday Phil showed up in my doorway, holding his watering can, eager to report the latest developments in the world of heavy metal. Motorhead released a new album. Slash checked into rehab. Ozzy had an abscess drained from his ass. His biggest news was the announcement of the Iron Maiden reunion, a tour he’d been waiting for since 1993. “Dickinson is back. Adrian Smith is back. The tour manager from Seventh Son is back,” he said, counting off each highlight on his hand. I wasn’t a big Iron Maiden fan, but it was hard not to share his excitement. It stirred in me a nostalgia for a simpler time, when I was young enough to have dreams but too young to actually pursue them.
My conversations with Phil soon became a lifeline, tethering me back to a world I once knew, a world of vanilla-scented car fresheners and acid-washed denim and menthol cigarettes. The more he and I waxed about the heyday of heavy metal, the more I realized I had no place at an ad agency that specialized in fashion. Aside from the outfit I wore on my interview, my closet consisted of sweatpants and hoodies. On a typical day I’d show up to work in a black leather jacket, Adidas track pants and Converse All-Stars—suitable clothes for the emergency room at three in the morning, but not at the agency that pioneered the “lifestyle brand image”. The rest of the office looked like extras from Love Story: handsome and healthy, blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, cable knit sweaters with cashmere scarves draped around their necks. It was as though they had come straight from the quad after a friendly game of rugby—unlike myself, who had come straight from a studio apartment after a round of earth-shattering bong hits.
One Monday I was called into a brainstorming session for a new business pitch. The meeting was scheduled at the same time as Phil’s routine visit. At first I was quiet and sulky at missing our regular heavy metal rundown, but soon I got comfortable and became engaged in the discussion, chuckling and throwing around buzzwords like “modern authentic” and “timeless classic”. I was halfway through describing a campaign idea when I heard a snip. At the far end of the conference room was Phil, pruning shears in hand, scowling at me from behind an orchid. From that point on, every time I said something, Phil clipped off a leaf. “This feels too much like Eddie Bauer,” I said. Snip. “For the advertorial, how about four beautiful young people escape to rural Maine for the weekend?” Snip. “Maybe we could get Damian Rice to play at the trunk show? Him and his acoustic, dress him in a Henley and a knitted cap?” Snip snip.
The group applauded my ideas, but I felt sick with betrayal. There I was, illustrating some apparel brand’s core values, when I’d so obviously lost sight of my own. Had Phil not awakened some truer part in me? Had he not reminded me, while quoting Metallica, that a person’s soul never changes, that either it breeds or it’s condemned to a creeping death? Had I sold out in an attempt to sell records?
When Phil finished with the orchid, he picked up his watering can and stormed out of the conference room, slamming the door behind him. I recognized this petulance from my teenage years. In junior high I was banished from the popular crowd for making friends with someone outside of our clique. Rather than grovel back with my hat in hand I shunned them and vowed never to return. I quit the football team, boycotted the school dances and retreated to the shadows. There I made new friends, kids with spiked hair, earrings and Slayer tee shirts. Though we looked like a group of rejects, we shared a common thread: anger.
I was liberated. There was something virtuous about hanging out in convenient store parking lots after school while the popular kids played sports and dated girls. On weekends I took the train into Boston and loitered outside rock clubs like The Rathskeller. There wasn’t much going on at eleven in the morning, but I hung around the area anyway, hoping someone might mistake me for a lead singer, or at the very least a homeless kid. I’d sit in Kenmore Square and fantasize about my rise to stardom, something so spectacular that the entire school would have no choice but to worship me. Could I release an album by the time I finished eighth grade? I doubted it. Other options included dating a thirty-year old or saving the school from a Russian invasion, neither of which seemed plausible either. Then I had a vision: me, alone on the auditorium stage, in front of my eighth grade class, finger-tapping through the symphonic climax of Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption while four hundred of my peers sat hypnotized.
“Mom, I need to learn the guitar,” I said one day after class.
“What’s wrong with piano?” she shot back. For the last three years I had taken piano lessons at my mother’s insistence. According to her, all children should begin intensive musical training by the age of ten. Like Mozart, she had reasoned. “By the time he was your age he was conducting operas for kings,” she said, a simple and fair comparison.
Piano is a fine instrument but insufficient as a means to channel rage. There are only a few angry pianists, the most obvious being the Phantom of the Opera. I needed an instrument that could scream, one that could accurately express my anguished soul. More importantly I needed an instrument I could play standing up, while dressed in leather pants and a hooded cloak.
My mother eventually gave in and found me a guitar teacher who made house calls. To send the message that I was a budding virtuoso, I showed up ten minutes late for the first lesson. Had I been traveling from a distant suburb this might be expected, but the fact that I was coming from an upstairs bedroom lent a certain mystique to the proceedings. “Danny! Hurry up, you idiot. We’re paying this man by the minute,” my mother yelled. Finally I appeared at the top of the staircase. As I slowly descended to the first floor my mother’s face tightened. “Why are you wearing pajamas?” she said.
I explained that this was the signature outfit I’d wear on stage: a white dress shirt, unbuttoned and tucked into my little league baseball pants. Originally there was a bathrobe, too, but my mom convinced me to drop it, even though it gave the whole look that touch of royalty. “Lose the wine glass, too,” she hissed, taking it from my hand. “You look like a jackass. No one drinks iced tea from a wine glass.”
I followed her into the living room, where a strange bearded man stood holding a guitar case. “Danny, this is your guitar teacher, Ira Falkenhemie.”
There are many suitable names for a guitar teacher, but Ira Falkenhemie is not one of them. His Members Only jacket only reinforced my doubt, as did his gray cotton slacks, white tube socks and black sneakers. He looked like a postal worker who had just picked a tattered guitar case out of someone’s trash. Normally I try and hold back judgments based on name and appearance, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If my dermatologist entered the exam room wearing platform boots and introduced himself as Sid Vicious, I’d have similar concerns.
In spite of my prejudice, Ira was a good teacher and talented guitarist in his own right. He’d start each lesson with a brief theoretical overview, then we’d work on building blocks, and then he’d end by playing a complete song, something to inspire me. Still, my progress was slow. Six months in and I was still learning chord arrangements when I should have been soloing. Naturally I blamed this on Ira’s clothes. “If only he wore a cowboy hat,” I said to my mother, “or had some rings…or something tattooed on his hand, like a woman’s face…maybe I’d be further along.”
“Maybe you should try practicing,” she said. “You don’t live up to your end of the bargain. Every night I walk past your bedroom and you’re lip-syncing in the mirror, trying on different costumes like an idiot. The other night I heard you talking to someone, and when I opened the door you were interviewing yourself in a British accent. Maybe you should spend less time pretending and more time learning how to play the stupid instrument.”
I considered this for a moment. “I don’t know, mom. I hear what you’re saying, sort of, but I think it’s time for a new teacher.” To my way of thinking, rock and roll was less about fundamentals and more about persona. It was not something one practiced or learned, but rather a divine gift that was transferred from an elder to a select pupil. The right teacher would not be found in the classified ads, or tacked onto the neighborhood bulletin board. He must be sought out, and I knew just where to begin my quest.
Newton Centre Music was the only guitar shop within biking distance. I rode there at least three times a week after school, never to buy anything but to marvel at the collection of guitars. They hung on the wall, majestic, staggered up and down like the pipes of a church organ. Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Ibanez—names I’d only read about in the pages of Hit Parader. Some were priced as high as five thousand dollars. I’d overheard the owner a few times talking about a guitar teacher who sometimes taught out of the back room. When I approached the counter and asked the owner’s face grew solemn. “You mean Pete Duran?”
Pete Duran. It was precisely the kind of name I wanted in a guitar teacher. “That’s him,” I said.
As it turned out, Pete Duran also taught out of his apartment, which happened to be four blocks away from my house. This meant I could walk to my lessons, carrying my guitar case as I strutted down suburban streets. I’d see my shadow under the streetlights and hold out my thumb like I was hitchhiking. This will be the cover of my first album, I thought. All I needed was a title. And some songs.
Unlike Ira, Pete Duran looked the part: long brown curls, parted down the middle like Ted Nugent. His image was all the instruction I needed, and soon I realized that’s all I would get. He spent most of our thirty-minute lesson describing the various studios he’d recorded in, or talking about his earliest influences, or trying to sell me his personal belongings. It started with his CDs, a stack of which he displayed on the table, as though his living room was a Barnes & Noble book signing. Beyond that he tried to hock old guitars, amplifiers and other related gear. After a couple months he branched out to everyday household items, anything from used bandanas to imported hair products. “This is the only kind I use,” he said, referring to the thermos-sized can of styling mousse in his hand. “It’s regularly ten bucks. But for you, it’s five.”
After three months Pete upped his rate from fourteen bucks a lesson to sixteen, and my suspicion grew. After four months he had disappeared entirely, with no notice or anything. I walked down for our Wednesday night lesson and knocked on the door. A young woman answered. “Can I help you?” she said.
I stood on the front porch, guitar case in hand, and then turned around and left.
That summer I saved up my caddying money and bought a Fender Stratocaster and a Marshall amp. I also subscribed to Guitar Player magazine. Published in each issue was the sheet music to a handful of popular rock songs. For those who couldn’t read music the songs were transcribed in tablature, an ingenious system that replaced those confusing dots and staffs with numbers that corresponded with the frets on a guitar. The age-old language of music had finally been decoded and made accessible to anyone who lacked the discipline to understand it.
Gone were the days of strumming cheery campfire sing-a-longs or bleak Irish folk tunes. If someone asked me to play something I dazzled them with a medley of Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and Van Halen. The only fundamentals needed to play these songs were two ears and a basic understanding of the numeric system. Unlike the acoustic, the electric guitar forgave my lack of skill. Rather than hunker down and learn the advanced parts, I’d compensate by scraping the pick up and down the neck or hitting a high note and bending the vibrato bar back and forth until the strings snapped. The music was often incoherent, but if I closed my eyes, tilted my head back and made the right facial expression, it was considered performance.
In high school I cobbled together a band, three guitarists and a drummer. We took turns on vocals, which didn’t matter anyway since none of us owned a microphone. Our instruments were out of tune, our time was off, and we lacked that one special ingredient called talent. We couldn’t even get to the bridge in “Back in Black” before drifting off into side conversations. Still, I kept showing up, mainly because I enjoyed the bus ride to the drummer’s house. I pictured myself on a Midwest interstate, bound for Hollywood, nothing to my name but a guitar case, a few bucks and a notebook full of song lyrics. Then I’d get to the rehearsal and start playing, and my dream of rock and roll greatness instantly dissolved.
After three weeks the band broke up, but I continued taking the bus to random places, like pizza parlors or car dealerships, always with my guitar case in hand. Playing the role of struggling musician was far more gratifying than the actual struggle to play music.
By tenth grade I got back into sports and other school activities. I abandoned my headbanger clique for a more socially acceptable, well-adjusted group of friends. As such, the guitar went down to the basement, where over the years the humidity and mildew has warped it into a Salvador Dali painting. It’s still there to this day, propped on its stand, next to that Marshall amp, both covered in a coat of dust. Whenever I’m at my mother’s house I’ll go down, turn the lights on and there it is, this souvenir of my teenage angst, slowly curling up at the edges like a withered tree branch.
In my late thirties I was haunted by the idea that I’d chosen the wrong path in life. At work I’d idle away the hours on Youtube, watching vintage concerts from the 80s and 90s. At home I’d lie on the couch reading one rock and roll biography after another. If I just stuck with guitar. If I just stayed in Los Angeles. If I just got sober twenty years earlier. I had spun a narrative in my mind, one in which my true passions were sacrificed for a more stable, conventional career. But there were no true passions. No missed callings. No squandered gifts. Just because I identified with the image of heavy metal didn’t mean I could survive its reality. In one biography I read that a certain 80s hard rock band—one of the biggest in the world—shared a studio apartment on the Sunset Strip for two years before they caught their break. Five guys living in one room. After a month the toilet broke, and instead of fixing it they just shit into cardboard boxes and throw them out the window. I love that story, but I can’t see myself as a character in it. What with my chronic bowel disease, I can’t even go to the beach for two hours without first scouting the dunes for a port-a-potty.
* * * *
When Phil the plant guy finally saw that Iron Maiden reunion concert his report was abysmal. “Total bullshit,” he said from my doorway, trembling with rage, his watering can in hand. “They didn’t play ‘Wasted Years’, they didn’t play ‘Alexander the Great’, and they didn’t play ‘Hallowed be thy Name’. And to make things worse, Bruce Dickinson started railing against some kids in the front row for smoking pot, like he’s making this big anti-drug statement just because he spends all his time doing competitive fencing, or whatever the fuck.”
He made no effort to hide his disappointment. Later he was upstairs in the studio, re-potting the second floor orchids, ranting to the entire creative team about the fucking god-awful Iron Maiden show and how he’d been ripped off by a bunch of sell-out geezers. The art directors nodded politely, but whenever they tried to resume their meeting Phil would lash out with another gripe about the malfunctioning sound system, or the parking lot chaos, or how the opening act was booed, or the vomit stain on his chair that the ushers refused to clean. In his fury he knocked over one of the orchids, sending a fan of soil across the hardwood floor. “Goddammit!” he cried, dropping his trowel and holding his head in his hands. Then he walked off to the bathroom to collect himself.
Two weeks later a new plant guy showed up to water our orchids. I assumed our HR person complained and Phil was let go, either that or Black Angel finally got that recording deal. I miss our conversations, the same way I miss holding my old Stratocaster and playing the intro to “Welcome the Jungle”. It’s fun for a minute but then it feels embarrassing and redundant. Even so, it’s nice to know it’s still around, if for no other reason than to remind me of how it used to be.
Over the last two years I’ve developed a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and completing a series of household chores. This baffles me since, by nature, I am not an overly tidy person. During the day I could care less about that sink full of dishes, or the spot of tomato sauce that’s curdled on the floor, but at precisely 3:30 in the morning I will spring out of bed, grab a utility knife from my toolbox and spend forty minutes scraping dirt off the linoleum floor. It’s as though an unknown spirit takes control of my body and guides me to the scene of something tragic, something I must make right, like my bathtub, where a ring of mold has formed around the drain. “Thank you,” I mumble, and then fall to my knees and scrub.
Unlike most people who wake up in the middle of the night and watch TV or surf the web in order to tire themselves back to sleep, I approach these chores with a sense of urgency. These are things I must do, and must do immediately, between the hours of three and four AM. I may be half-asleep and uncaffeinated, but somehow I have the presence of mind to re-spline a window screen and then walk outside to my Jeep, where I wash the license plate with Windex.
Strange patterns have emerged, motifs that tie together different chores. One night I cleaned my freezer, chiseling through layers of ice and uncovering packages of frozen vegetables that dated back to 2007. When I was done purging, all that remained was a single pint of ice cream. It was beautiful, this surviving bucket of Ben & Jerry’s, all by itself in the middle of a dark ice cave. The following night I grabbed a similarly shaped container of Spackle from my tool shelves. Then I used a putty knife to patch the screw holes in my bathroom ventilation grate. Months have passed since then and still whenever I see anything cylindrical, like a Yankee candle or a propane tank, I’m caught in a trance of déjà vu.
Many of these “spells” come on the heels of a dream. One moment I’m in the cockpit of a plane, piloted by my niece’s seventeen year-old boyfriend, the next moment I’m on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor, holding a tape measure, wondering if this particular tile has been discontinued. Is there a connection these two things? It’s hard to say. Once I’m awake my dreams quickly dissolve into a faded snapshot. I was caulking my bathtub at four in the morning when suddenly I stopped and began rolling the silicone sealant between my thumb and forefinger. “What is this?” I said. Then a vision came to me from that night’s dream: a faceless woman, wearing a cowboy hat and a surgical mask, squeezing a tube of fluoride paste into a mouth tray.
Like the Wolfman, who finds himself at sunrise on a park bench, barefoot and shirtless, I’ve woken up on the floor, or in the front hall, my fingernails caked with white paint or stained from WD-40. Further evidence of my shadowy housekeeping is strewn throughout my condo. “Something happened here,” I’ll say, standing in my kitchen like a psychic who’s brought in to a murder scene. The vibe gets stronger as I move toward the wall. I lean forward onto the balls of my feet and rise up on my tippy toes. “Yes, a little higher now. This feels right,” I say. Then I peer onto the tops of the picture frames and discover that they’ve been freshly dusted.
“There’s something strange going on at my house,” I told Steve, a fellow alcoholic, after my Tuesday night AA meeting. “Every morning I wake up at 3:30 and clean. I know I’m awake, but it doesn’t feel like me inside my head. It’s starting to freak me out, man. The other night my wife woke up and I was standing over the bed, holding a toilet brush. What if next time it’s a kitchen knife?”
Steve sipped his coffee and shrugged, and I immediately regretted telling him. How could I expect this guy to relate? He’s never dealt with a ghost before. In fact, since his wife left him, he’s been living out of his car, and I highly doubt a ghost would haunt a ’98 Mercury Sable. I changed the conversation back to him. “Anyway, enough about me. You were talking about your runaway daughter. Continue.”
“It’s just some light sleepwalking,” my wife contends, or at least she did until recently. Her attitude shifted a month ago when she too began falling under the same kind of spells. I woke up one night and found her standing on the bed, peeking behind my Goonies poster. “This is all wrong,” she whispered. A couple weeks later she was swiping her hand at the comforter, complaining about the centipedes. Her creepiest vision came just last week, when she woke me up to inform me that a crab was crawling out of my left ear. Even more disturbing was the casual manner in which she told me. “Be sure it doesn’t lay any eggs in your head,” she said, half asleep, as though reminding me to turn off the living room light. By the time I finished dousing my face with bug spray, she was snoring.
Though she admits it’s doubly bizarre that this strange behavior afflicts both of us, she still shrugs it off as benign. “Who knows? People do weird things when they sleep.” Even when I ask about the unexplained bruise on her calf that appeared one morning, she chalks it up to a common iron deficiency in females.
“Do other women get bruises shaped like a small child’s mouth?” I said, pointing at it. “With teeth marks, too?”
She claims I watch too many scary movies, and that my imagination gets carried away. This is true, but still, isn’t that how this story always goes? Nobody believes the main character until the end, when it’s too late and the entire house is overrun with translucent longhaired people dressed in Civil War costumes. “Does this seem like the work of a demon?” she says, gesturing toward our freshly painted baseboard trim. “I’ve heard of people committing murder because the voices told them to do it, but what kind of ghost drives a person to scrub his shower with calcium remover?”
“The kind with self-respect,” I say, as though it’s obvious. “Maybe the ghost was a maid. Maybe it had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Maybe there was a murder, and the killer spent the night cleaning up the mess. Whatever it was, something terrible happened in this house at 3:30 in the morning. And while it was happening, they were listening to NPR, which is why I keep turning the volume up on the stereo every night.”
“That makes sense,” Amanda said, typing something into her phone, possibly an email to a psychiatric hospital. She grabbed her gym bag, took one last look around the apartment and, deeming it free of sharp objects, left for her spin class.
The old me would have simply accepted a poltergeist in my home, the same way I accepted my mustard-colored clapboard siding. For ten years my house looked as though it had been painted with turkey gravy, but now that I’m sober I’ve made a conscious effort to upgrade it. This summer I hired a contractor to install new siding. I haven’t heard from him since he cashed my deposit check, two months ago, but the wheels are in motion. I’m confident that one day his crew will show up and I’ll return from work to a house that no longer looks condemned.
The ability to deal with things in a confident and composed manner is one of the many gifts of working a twelve-step program. In the last three years I’ve gained the coping skills required to sit in traffic, navigate the rough patches of a marriage, and live with a nagging bacterial skin infection. Now that list includes warding off a supernatural entity.
I began my paranormal investigation with Google, a tool that, in the past, has helped prove the existence of basically anything that wanders through my twisted mind. My first search, “ghost possession and household chores”, brought me to a Boston University graduate dissertation about a Swahili cult. Apparently spirit possession was used to domesticate tribal women in 19th century Zanzibar. Since I gleaned all this from the title alone, there was no need to read the actual thesis. Next I clicked on a link titled “Symptoms of Ghost Possession” and landed on the Spiritual Research Foundation’s website. The first paragraph contained a startling statistic: nearly 30% of all people are in some way possessed by a ghost. Satisfied, I closed my laptop and texted Amanda. Guess what. This kind of shit’s been happening for hundreds of years, and there’s a 1 in 3 chance it’s a ghost. You’re welcome.
Equipped with sufficient proof, it was time to involve the church. I happen to know a priest, someone I met fifteen years ago at a soup kitchen. He mistook me as homeless and offered me his phone number. "The parish is always open if you ever feel desperate and need someone to talk to," he said.
“Thanks," I said, "but I don't think I'll need this". I explained that I was actually there as a volunteer, part of my office's outreach initiative, and that my life was in a really good place. Still I called him three days later, high on cocaine, and asked if he had any connections in Los Angeles. After that we spoke every six months or so, either late at night or early in the morning, depending on the kind of drugs I’d ingested. The last time I reached out was five years ago while hallucinating on mushrooms. I left a rambling voicemail about the existence of God and how I'd no longer have the need for shoes.
We hadn’t spoken since I got clean, so it pleased him to learn I was still alive, not to mention sober and married. His delight turned to suspicion, however, once I told him I was possessed by a demon, and asked if he could perform an exorcism.
“The church has a strict decree about this sort of thing. Unless your life is in immediate danger, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. Apparently ghosts are granted the same legal protection as stalkers or estranged lovers. As long as they don't violate any restraining orders they’re free to haunt whomever they please.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll remember that when my soul is being torn apart in hell.”
The priest sighed. “Okay, Danny. If it is something supernatural, my involvement might only make it worse. It’s looking for validation, so the more you feed into it, the more real it becomes. I suggest you ignore it. Instead of engaging with it, try connecting with God through prayer. Do that, and the ghost will lose interest.”
This was a boring plan. I had hoped for something a little more spectacular, like the two of us huddled around an ancient book, reading together in Latin while the doors blew open and my condo filled with streams of blue fire. Instead I got the kind of advice my doctor gives when I ask for a pill that cures fatigue. I expect him to reach into a case and hand me a vial of glowing liquid, but instead all I get is: “Eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise”.
Even so, I thought it prudent to furnish my condo with two crucifixes, one for the living room and one for the bedroom. This way God’s protection could beam from both ends of the unit, like my air conditioners. I went on Amazon, typed in “wooden crosses” and found an infinite supply in all sizes and materials. Then I remembered the old myth about vampires and holy water, so I retyped “blessed wooden crosses”. Again, the results were plentiful. I bought two crucifix-and-rosary combo packs, blessed by Pope Francis in 2013, for sixteen bucks each. Now the “recently purchased” section of my Amazon profile reads: vintage Trapper Keeper notebook, DVD of the movie Cobra, wooden crucifix blessed by the Pope.
The next day my package arrived. “This is just temporary, right?” Amanda said as she watched me take down the oil painting that hung on our bedroom wall, the one her mother gave us for Christmas, and replace it with a gaudy crucifix made of composite wood and bronze.
“I hope so,” I said. “Here. Wear this.” I placed a rosary around her neck, a gesture that mimicked an Olympic ceremony. It was as though Amanda had won a gold medal in the sport of Catholicism. “Just for tonight. See if it makes any difference.”
We lay in bed that night and watched The Office, our matching rosary beads draped around our necks. Amanda fell asleep after fifteen minutes, but I stayed up to watch another episode, feeling obligated to entertain our new roommate, Jesus. During the funny scenes I imagined him, nailed to the cross, howling with laughter and thanking me for the much needed distraction.
For the first time in months I slept peacefully throughout the entire night. At 7:30 the next morning I woke up to the sound of someone knocking.
“Who’s at the door?” I said, but Amanda was still asleep.
Again the knock. Not from the door, though. It came from inside the bedroom wall.
“Amanda,” I said, pushing her shoulder. Nothing. I sat up in bed, looking around the room, waiting for the sound. Just as I lay back down it came, three violent knocks this time, so forceful that the crucifix fell from the wall and landed facedown on the floor.
“It’s happening,” I said softly, and then my condo began to shake. The knocking returned along with it, louder and from all directions. I pictured a thousand ghastly fists pounded on the walls outside. Mixed into the clamor was a screeching voice, speaking fast, yelling something in a foreign language.
Now Amanda was up. “What the hell is that?” she said.
“Get dressed!” I cried. I ran to the living room. The crucifix that hung from that wall now lay flat on the floor. Through the windows I glimpsed dark figures, hovering, waiting to invade my condo and devour my soul. I picked the crucifix off the floor, ran back through the kitchen, unlocked the back door, flung it open and then screamed.
Standing there was a Latino woman wearing a black cowboy hat. Her face was smooth but her eyes were cracked with age. The early morning light formed a halo around her body. She said nothing, only smiled at me and gave me a quick bow. The demon, masquerading as an angel of light. My reckoning had come. I wanted to warn Amanda, tell her to run down the stairs, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I knew it was too late, anyway.
The woman tilted her head back and looked up at the sky. “Shh,” she said. Then she yelled something in Spanish, and the pounding stopped. She reached her arms into the air, and when she brought them down she held a large piece of rotted wood. She turned and threw the wood over the side of my deck. A moment later it crashed on the ground, and she turned back to me. “Okay,” she said, and disappeared down my back steps.
I walked out on the back deck, in my boxer shorts, and looked up. Three men were on the roof, speaking to each other in Spanish. They wore tool belts and work gloves. Standing on a ladder was a fourth man, prying a chunk of siding off my house. He saw me and nodded. I walked back inside to the living room and looked out the window. There were more workers at the front of the house, high up on scaffolding, using hammers and crowbars to peel off old clapboard. On the sidewalk was a foreman, pointing at places, shouting things. Behind him were two trucks, their doors reading NAIL-IT HOME IMPROVEMENT.
After two months, my exterior siding project had finally begun.
* * * *
Dr. Feldman does not believe in demons, at least not the ones that talk backwards and smell like rotten meat. According to his professional psychoanalytic opinion, I am haunted by the ghosts of my past. These ghosts cannot move objects, and they don’t quarrel over my soul, but they are real, “damaging,” as he puts it.
I ask if, by ghosts of the past, he’s referring to people who died when I was young. My grandmother, for instance. Or Mindy, my family’s cockapoo. “The dog, maybe,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure nana always liked me.”
He clarifies. “No. I’m talking about traumatic incidents or relationships, things that inform your behavior as an adult. These can be much more debilitating than a spirit up in the attic.”
I think of my father yelling at me, when I was six, for peeling the corner of the dining room wallpaper. My dad was a scary guy, but I imagine that’s nothing compared to waking up with a pentagram carved into my abdomen.
“So why am I waking up at the same time each night and cleaning my house?” I ask.
His answer is simple and confident. Anxiety. “You’re getting ready to sell your condo. You’re worried about the future. You’re overwhelmed with everything that’s going on—work, marriage, buying and selling a home, Crohn’s Disease, writing, sobriety—and something in you feels the compulsive need to get things done. You can’t relax, or else it will all fall apart. That lack of trust, I guarantee, can be traced back to your formative years.”
He says that since I fall asleep at roughly eleven o’clock every night, my third REM cycle would regularly end at around 3:30. Scientifically speaking, this is the time when people’s sleep is at its lightest. “And your subconscious is telling you to move. Or in this case, fix up the house.”
The shrink suggests that my wife has similar anxieties. Hers manifest in different ways. Instead of cleaning, she kills bugs. Two nights ago she woke up, grabbed a charcuterie board from the kitchen, and used it to swat imaginary flies.
I ask what I can do. Maybe a sleeping pill, or a Chinese herb, or a Native American sweat lodge. “Try ten minutes of meditation before you go to sleep,” he says. “Maybe scale back on your caffeine intake.”
“I’ll try that,” I say, but all I can think of is, You’re in on it. You’re one of them.
It has been less than twelve hours since the shrink appointment, but I can barely recall it, as though it were the faint residue of a dream. I hear him murmuring somewhere in the back of my mind, saying something about anxiety and stress management. But his voice fades out as I walk through the kitchen and into the living room. I don’t think I’m sleeping; after all, I’m cognizant enough to see the clock. It reads 3:33 AM. I look around the room and notice something in the corner, under the lamp: an ungainly mess of Ethernet cable, tangled together with a modem and a wireless router. The area is covered in dust bunnies and tumbleweeds of cat hair. A trail of them lead under the sofa. My heart begins to race.
I close my eyes. “Thank you,” I say. “It shall be done.”
And then I get to work.
“Fine, let’s have a wedding,” I said to my then-fiancé, Amanda. “As long as you know that the money we spend on a reception and honeymoon is money we’re not spending on a house. Think of it like this: a few days of happiness now, or a lifetime of happiness later.” Then, in a soothing tone, I added: “I’ll support your decision, either way.”
I have a rigid either/or mentality when it comes to expenses. Every time I buy something, I imagine a more appealing way to spend the same amount of money. I’m not sure exactly when or how I developed this principle, but it was fine-tuned during the later years of my painkiller addiction. Toward the end, I measured every expense by its value in Percocet. “There goes a whole week’s worth,” I’d groan while paying my mortgage. A romantic dinner for two might set me back a full day of drugs, while something smaller, like a AAA membership, equaled a single dose.
As such, I only spent money on material things when absolutely necessary. “Guess it’s time for that oil change,” I’d say while coasting along the breakdown lane, smoke billowing from my radiator. My utilities got paid only after the service was disconnected. Home repairs were solved with duct tape, anything from leaky faucets to broken screens to cracked linoleum tiles. I hadn’t bought a new article of clothing since 2001, which explained my closet full of mock turtlenecks, cargo shorts and bootcut jeans.
Unless they served a practical purpose, most household items were frivolous. Did I really need a showerhead? Water is water, and the way I saw it, I was lucky to even have any. I didn’t need multiple spray settings to increase its appeal. In the old days people bathed in creeks or, in later years, lobster pots. And they seemed clean enough, give or take the occasional diagnosis of scurvy.
I felt the same about bed frames. People spend thousands of dollars to frame their beds, as though sleeping is a form of fine art to be showcased in solid maple. It took me ten years to frame my Raiders of the Lost Ark poster, the one that currently hangs above my kitchen table, and now I’m told the bed needs the same kind of royal treatment?
Perhaps the most baffling of all housewares, however, is the oven mitt. Sure, a pair only costs ten or fifteen bucks, but really, will two dishtowels not accomplish the same thing? Or, in my case, a pair of old sweatpants? Any heavy fabric will do, but then, what fun is that? Shape it like a flipper and stamp a cupcake-and-bowtie pattern on it and the simple task of grabbing a hot casserole dish becomes a joyous and classy experience.
When Amanda and I first started dating, I loosened up with money, but once we moved in together I reverted back to that either/or mentality honed during my active addiction. The first signs of this came at the grocery store. “I should have been up front about this, but I’m not a wealthy man,” I said, lifting a bag of frozen shrimp out of the shopping cart.
“That cost four dollars,” Amanda replied. “I thought it would make a nice appetizer.”
Appetizers? I thought. Then what, a luxury box at the Kentucky Derby? “Yeah, but after adding the dipping sauce, then it’s more like eight bucks, and, well, do we want to spend eight bucks on an appetizer with zero nutritional value? Or should we spend that money on, say, a couple boxes of pasta and jars of sauce? That’s two whole dinners for the same price as a single…what did you call it…appetizer.”
“I’ll pay for the groceries,” Amanda said, grasping for the frozen shrimp in my hand.
“It’s really not about the money,” I explained, taking hold of the cart. “It’s about maximum value. It’s about developing sound consumer habits on a small scale so they become intuitive on larger, more consequential purchases.” My lecture continued up and down the remaining aisles, until we arrived at the checkout line, by which time Amanda could only respond with short, embattled nods.
After that, Amanda insisted on buying groceries alone, returning from Whole Foods each week with prime cuts of free-range meat and bundles of exotic vegetables. “Until you start cooking dinner around here, you have no say in what I buy. Is that understood?”
I nodded, then stowed the Peruvian sunchokes in the fridge.
Every week Amanda bought something new for the condo, small household items that seamlessly found their way into my daily life. House keys hung from a row of hooks instead of sprawled across the kitchen table. Pens and loose change resided in small ceramic trays. Bathroom toiletries disappeared from the edge of the sink and were neatly stored in wicker baskets. “I bet you didn’t even notice the silverware tray,” she said, nodding to the spoon resting in my bowl of Captain Crunch. I wiped the trickle of milk from my chin, removed the spoon from the bowl and stared at it, slowly realizing that I didn’t have to rummage through spatulas and turkey basters to find it.
Gradually I warmed up to these domestic touchups, though some purchases still irked me, like the plastic containers Amanda brought home from Ikea. She emptied a box of cereal into one and filled the other from a bag of cat kibble. “You realize that stuff already comes in its own container,” I said. “All you did was transfer one thing to another. Nothing is gained.”
“But now it looks much nicer,” she said, stepping back and marveling at the two containers, poised side by side on my laminate countertop.
Soon our home was filled with trinkets for which we had no immediate use, things Amanda bought simply because they were on sale. “We’ll need these eventually,” she said, referring to the glow-in-the-dark badminton net or the family of bronze penguins. Though we ran out of toilet paper every three days, our storage bins teemed with picture frames, cutting boards, cabinet liners, boxes of stationary, packs of assorted magnets, all with the price tags still attached.
One afternoon I got a text from Amanda: “I’m outside. Can you help bring up some stuff from the car?” This is the normal protocol with groceries, so I was surprised when I found the backseat full of Nordstrom’s bags. “Don’t get in a tizzy,” she said preemptively. “We needed all of this, and I only spent two-hundred and eighty dollars.” Only two hundred and eighty dollars? I thought, intuitively calculating how much food or electricity or condo fees that same amount would have yielded.
Upstairs, we unpacked the bags. “We needed shoes from Max Mara?” I said, staring down at the large white shoebox.
“What else am I going to wear to your niece’s graduation next week? Something has to go with this new dress,” Amanda said.
“How about flip-flops?” I said. “It’s not a formal event. We’ll be sitting on high school gymnasium bleachers for three hours.”
“Well, I’m sure there’ll be pictures afterward,” Amanda said.
I was ready to let it go and move on when Amanda pulled two sets of bed linens from the last shopping bag. “Wait a minute,” I said. “We already have a perfectly good set.” Amanda said there was nothing perfectly good about sheets with Yoda and Luke Skywalker printed all over them. She went on to explain that the new sheets were seasonal: light cotton for summer and chamois flannel for cold weather. The current set, she added, would be used strictly as reserves, or torn up into dusting rags.
“I paid fifty bucks for those sheets,” I said. “They’re not even a year old. I really hoped these would cover us in the sheet department for a while.” I asked her to return them to Nordstrom’s but she refused. This led to a heated argument that involved me lying on the bed and rolling around on the existing sheet. “See? Still works like a charm.”
Amanda dropped her face in her hands. “I can’t live like this,” she sobbed.
“Like what?” I fired back. “An impoverished life with only one set of bed linens?” I stormed out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
An hour later I cooled off and apologized. “You don’t have to return the sheets,” I said, standing at the bedroom door while Amanda lay face down on the bed. “The more I think about, we really do need them. They were a good idea. Brilliant, actually.”
“Good. Then it’s settled,” Amanda said, her voice muffled by the pillows.
I reminded myself that Amanda’s intentions were in the right place. This was how civilized people lived. They spent time and money turning their houses into warm and welcoming homes. They put thought and consideration into how they dressed. They treated themselves once in a while to a nice meal or a weekend getaway. This wasn’t materialism, as I had bitterly labeled it throughout fifteen years of drug addiction. This was self-respect, an area in which I had little to no experience.
The next day I had an epiphany. It was time to lighten up and start behaving like a normal member of society. My first step was to dress classier, so I reached under the bed for the storage bin where I kept my nicer, lesser-worn clothes. I removed the lid and saw that my clothes were gone, replaced with the two sets of bed linens. “Honey,” I shouted toward the bathroom, where Amanda brushed her teeth. “Have you seen my cashmere v-neck and gray chinos?”
“I needed room for the new sheets, so I moved your clothes to the front hall,” she said, spitting out toothpaste. “In a trash bag, next to the recycling bin.”
* * * *
That Christmas I asked Amanda to marry me. The engagement ring doubled as my main present, thus I was able to shop for the rest of my gifts at CVS. I gave Amanda those first, watching her eyes narrow with bewilderment as she unwrapped random general store merchandise. “This is scented with green tea,” I said, pointing at the six-pack of bar soap in her lap. She nodded and feigned excitement and then placed the soap in a pile with the rest of her gifts: a travel-size compact mirror, an eyeglass-repair kit and a box of Flonase.
“Let me guess: um…probiotics?” she said as I handed her the gift-wrapped ring box.
We made a pact to wait until the New Year before delving into the logistics of a wedding. “I totally agree,” Amanda said, staring at the diamond on her finger. “Let’s just enjoy this before it gets stressful.” Forty minutes later she was on her laptop looking at venues. “Would you rather something elegant, like this,” she said, holding up a picture of young Aryan couple posing against a deck railing, gazing out at Narragansett Bay, a disturbing amount of glee molded on their faces. “Or we could do something more rustic, like this,” she said, clicking over to the interior of a pinewood lodge, where a young couple in matching camouflage exchanged vows beneath a mounted deer head, the camera angle making it seem as though the animal itself performed the nuptials.
I reached for her laptop. “Or we could do something cheaper, like this,” I said, holding up a picture of city hall. “Or we could just elope. Sneak away for a few days, somewhere romantic. I’m thinking Connecticut.”
After some discussion we agreed on a small, intimate ceremony and reception, mostly as a courtesy to our families. “No friends,” I said. “Immediate family only.” I thought of all my high school and college friends who got married over the last ten years, many of whom had invited me to their weddings and never even got an RSVP from me. “This will save us from having to choose who to invite and who gets left out.”
We picked a general timeframe, somewhere around the end of February. This gave us two months to plan the whole thing, which, to our way of thinking, meant less time to agonize over details. Our goal was to keep it simple, as we say in Alcoholics Anonymous. For most people, weddings are huge events that require a cast and crew of hundreds. In fact, most engagements last for years. Take my friend, Victoria, who got engaged last fall and won’t be married until June of 2017. This means her wedding will require more time and energy than the next Star Wars film.
For the venue, Amanda wanted something with relevance, “sentimental value”, as she called it. For me, the obvious choice was Ihop, where we split our first breakfast sampler. A close second was Dave & Buster’s. Amanda dismissed these as tacky, suggesting instead the New England Aquarium or the Roger Williams Park Zoo. “How is that relevant?” I said. “Shouldn’t we at least be among our own species, for starters?”
“It would be so beautiful, though, to be surrounded by wildlife,” Amanda said, her face distant and dreamy. I could tell she pictured something biblical, like the two of us perched atop an altar made of traprock, wearing garlands and loincloths, staring out an audience of snow leopards and baby elephants.
When Amanda told me the price for the zoo, I gasped. “Seriously? Three months of mortgage payments just to get married in a diorama of the Congo?”
Ultimately we decided on an old Governor’s House on the east side of Providence, near the Brown campus. For a few hundred bucks we had limited access to a large room for the ceremony, one bathroom, the front hall and part of the stairwell.
Amanda found a restaurant close to the Governor’s House and began coordinating times, drafting menus and securing deposits. She contacted a florist and, with help from her mother and sister, worked on party favor ideas and other decorations. These were the details I took for granted. Name cards. A guest book. Invitations. Music. Rings. Photographs. A justice of the peace.
“How’s that coming, by the way?” Amanda said, searching the internet for wedding dress inspiration.
“How’s what coming?”
“The justice of the peace. You were supposed to figure that out by now.” She took a deep breath. “The wedding’s in four weeks, Danny. You need to start helping out here.”
Originally I had tweeted Axl Rose, asking if he’d officiate the wedding, but it had been almost a month and I hadn’t got a response. So I went on Angie’s List, the same website where I found my plumber, and searched for someone to marry us. Out of the three names that came back I picked the least expensive, a woman named Joan. I clicked on her website, scrolled past her mission statement and credentials and went straight for the pictures. In each one, Joan was dressed in a white robe with her hands clasped in front of her waist, standing between a newly married couple. While their faces were all smiling and giddy, Joan’s expression was always hauntingly blank. This was made even creepier by her short, Greco-Roman haircut. She seemed to be all business, as though saying to the camera, “Here, master. I brought you another set of humans.”
According to the site, Joan offered her own gospel music for an additional fifty bucks. This was verified by another photo, this one of Joan holding an acoustic guitar, strumming away, her eyes closed and her mouth open in song, revealing a set of enormous horse teeth. I saw no newlyweds or family members in the picture, probably because they were facedown on the ground, dead from cyanide poisoning, while Joan hummed the chorus to “Amazing Grace”.
In all honesty, Joan frightened me. Her face had an evangelical sheen, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, or Jason’s mother in Friday the 13th. But her fee was nominal compared to the competition, so I sent her a query email and checked that off my list.
The wedding was three weeks away, and things were somehow falling into place. Amanda’s dad found us a pianist and a photographer, both friends of his from college. They signed on at a discounted rate, so long as we paid in advance, and in cash. We gave them both some basic direction over the phone. “Let’s keep it modern,” I said to the pianist. “Like Elton John, David Bowie, none of that ‘Here Comes the Bride’ shit.”
I took the same approach with the photographer. “I don’t want any phony wedding poses,” I said on a conference call, Amanda next to me on the couch. “I want it to look raw, gritty, editorial-style. Behind-the-scenes. I’m seeing a lot of blurry black and white stuff, me with my tie undone, maybe a cigarette in my mouth, sitting in an old convertible. I look haggard and worn out.”
Amanda released the mute button. “Just do your normal thing,” she said into the speakerphone. “As long as we get a few family shots and something nice for the mantle.”
For superstition’s sake I was left out of the dress-hunting process, a relief considering how torturous it seemed. Amanda ordered three to four dresses a week, had them shipped to her, tried them on at home and then sent them all back, frustrated to tears. “Just get something simple and white,” I said, my mouth full of potato chips. “What’s the big deal?” Amanda said nothing, then calmly picked up a J.Crew box and threw it at my head.
Eventually she found a dress, and as soon as we dropped it off with the seamstress we felt like two refugees who’d just made it through customs. We weren’t free and clear quite yet, but the unnerving part was over. All that stood in the way was a trip to Rhode Island for the marriage license.
The night before the wedding, Amanda and her sister stayed in a hotel in Providence. This was to ensure a short drive to the ceremony, and also to accommodate the seven hundred-dollar hair and makeup crew. My preparation had less fanfare. I drove down to Providence the morning of the wedding, in sweatpants, my Men’s Wearhouse suit in the back seat of my Jeep Wrangler. Once I got into Providence I pulled into a Best Western, walked into the lobby’s restroom, changed into my suit, then walked out. From there I took an Uber to the Governor’s House and waited. It was ten-thirty, and the place didn’t open until eleven. I sat on the front steps and waited for the guests to arrive. In my hand was a brown paper bag containing our wedding rings.
* * * *
In the days leading up to our wedding, the most common advice I’d gotten was “pay attention, because it goes by fast”. This proved to be true, especially since we only had the venue for forty-five minutes. Factor in Amanda’s late arrival, and that left us with thirty-five. As soon as we were presented as “Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Pellegrini” the house’s event coordinator began ushering people out. “Thank you, congratulations, have a wonderful life together,” she said to the guests as she held open the door. Amanda and I waited for everyone to leave, then snuck into the backyard, with the photographer, to steal a few portraits against the house’s exterior. On a few of them the event coordinator can be seen in the background, behind a first floor window, scowling at us.
Afterward, we spent a few nights in Newport. Amanda called this a “mini-moon”, which, like the term “stay-cation”, is a euphemism, intended to help cheapskates like myself feel better about their stinginess and boring sense of adventure. Telling someone you’re taking a “stay-cation” implies it was a choice, that all you wanted to do was relax in your EZ chair for a week, or “run some errands”, or take a series of little day trips to local diners and antique shops. Tell someone you’re taking a “mini-moon”, and the implication is that a bigger moon lies ahead, at a more opportune time.
I thought about this as I sat on the edge of the ocean cliffs with my new wife, looking out at the Atlantic on a sunny, sixty-degree February day. Sure, the money we spent on our wedding could have gone elsewhere, maybe a home renovation or a lingering debt or a trip to some remote island. Or I could have bought a thousand painkillers and sat on a park bench for three months, dreaming of a bigger moon, wondering if I’d ever meet someone and live happily ever after.
The Greater Fool
I felt good that morning, eager for my walk to work. I plugged in my ear buds and hit the sidewalk when I heard a voice from next door.
“Uh-oh. You pissed somebody off.” This from my neighbor, John, a grizzled South Boston townie who stands in front of his house all day with his arms folded. John is younger than me, but he could easily pass for sixty. Maybe it’s his missing teeth, or his limp, or his slurred speech. Or maybe he seems older because of his 20-year old daughter. She and her boyfriend hang out in a red Mercury Sable that never leaves the driveway. It sits parked, the engine running, the windows fogged with pot smoke. In seven years I’ve never seen his daughter leave that car, at least not without the help of a warrant or an EMT.
I turned to John, removing my ear buds. “Come again?”
He pointed at my Jeep, parked across the street. The windshield had been smashed in three places. From where I stood they looked like bullet holes, evidence of a gangland-style execution: two above the steering wheel and a third on the passenger side, slightly lower, as though intended for someone shorter. Like my wife.
I crossed the street to take a look. They weren’t bullet holes, but dents in the glass, each one surrounded by a spider web of cracks. The work of a hammer, or a baseball bat, or a boot heel.
“That looks like some kinda message.” John again.
“It’s probably just junkies,” I said. I rarely locked my Jeep at night and hardly drove it during the week, and as a result the neighborhood heroin addicts used it as a safe haven to cook and shoot their dope. Some mornings I’d open the door and find my seat tilted all the way back, along with some minor disarray, like an open glove box or a misplaced CD case. I pictured the addict getting high, reclining the driver’s seat and reading the liner notes of my Phil Collins CD before peacefully nodding off. It warmed my heart, this rapport I had built with the local junkies. My Jeep was a form of public welfare, like clean hypodermic needles or free chicken soup.
“Yah, you’re prob’ly right,” John said. But deep down I knew I was kidding myself. This was a kinda message. And as I pieced together a possible explanation, one that became more certain with each thudding heartbeat, my body got colder. If my theory was accurate, then this was just the beginning, and my life could be in unholy danger.
* * *
Who would send me a message by smashing my windshield? Well, since I began posting stories online, I can name at least two-dozen culprits off the top of my head. But the one that stood out was a woman I met online nearly eighteen months earlier. Let’s call her Jane.
On our second date, Jane suggested we visit some of her friends at an underground goth party, held in the back room of a Boston bar. I was surprised. Jane had rosy cheeks and light hair, a departure from the black lipstick and pale complexions that are typically associated with goth culture. “My friends are really laid back,” she assured me. For me, laid back means three middle-aged men on lawn chairs, drinking cans of Miller High Life. Not a room full of people dressed in hooded cloaks. Still, in the spirit of adventure, I told her I’d be happy to go.
To my surprise, it was just like any other party, only with heavier music and meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. The people were polite and welcoming, not aloof like the garden-variety Boston assholes I encountered in my former club days. I had an enlightening conversation with someone named Glamboy. For forty minutes we discussed climate change, not the kind of subject matter you’d expect from a 20-year old kid wearing mascara and plastic fangs.
The next day I wrote about the experience in my journal. Of course I did. It’s not everyday that I meet someone who sleeps in a coffin in his parents’ basement. I titled the entry “My Night With Glamboy”, closed the journal and felt a creeping doubt about my future with Jane.
We went on one more date, a day trip to the Liberty Tree Mall, where we browsed through leather accessories in a store called Hot Topic. I felt uncomfortable there, mainly because the target demographic seemed to be adolescent girls with sadomasochistic tendencies. “You should get this,” Jane shouted from three aisles over, holding up a codpiece that looked like it was made for a 12-year old. I bent down and scratched my head, avoiding the cashier’s stare.
I liked Jane, but, in the end, we weren’t on the same page. Whenever I suggested typical date fare, like lunch, she’d counter with, “Maybe, but Sunday is fetish night at Club Hell. I sorta told some friends I’d go.” I wanted to get to know her in a quiet, relaxing environment, one that wasn’t encumbered by industrial music or Nazi propaganda films projected on the walls. Finally, after three dates, I called it quits, citing my early sobriety as the main reason. She respected that. There was no ill will and she told me I could always call her when my recovery reached sturdier ground.
Months passed, and in December of 2014, while scanning through my journal for a story idea, I came across “My Night With Glamboy”. I expanded it to 3500 words and used Jane’s character as the access point, making the story less of an exposé on goth subculture and more about the lurid adventures that await us on the other end of dating sites. And while I changed Jane’s name, virtually everything else was taken verbatim: her job, the town where she lived, her physical description and mannerisms, and nearly all of our dialogue, including the vulnerable moments, like when she revealed her compulsion to self-mutilate.
The one detail I changed was inconsequential: the dating site. Jane pointed this out when she eventually read the story, nearly six months after I posted it. I was at my office late one day in June of 2015—two months before the smashed windshield—when I got an email from Weebly, the server that hosts my blog, alerting me of a reader comment.
That’s funny. I thought we met on OK Cupid. Not Tinder.
Gooseflesh spread across my body. How did she find my blog? Not by Googling my name, that’s for sure. I do this at least once a week and am always disappointed by the six pages of Daniel Pellegrini I click through before arriving at the Greater Fool website. Even my father, Daniel Pellegrini Sr., appears before me on a Google search, and he’s been dead for thirteen years.
Jane must have visited my Facebook profile and found one of my more recent posts relating to my blog. We’re not friends on Facebook, but apparently that doesn’t matter. If a post is labeled as “public”, anyone can view it. Still, even if she got to my blog she’d have had to scroll through six months’ worth of stories to find hers, and back then I wrote two a month. That’s twelve stories at an average of 3500 words each. A total of forty thousand words, half the length of the average novel.
Suddenly I felt like I was being watched. I shut down my computer and hurried out the door.
On the walk home, I thought about the story, wondering what else was in there and how damaging it might be. Maybe it’s not so bad, I thought, and then I remembered one passage, early on, that described Jane’s face as “…permanently disdainful, as though wincing at a foul smell…a fresh cadaver who was deeply unsatisfied with the way in which she died.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, pulling at the few remaining strands of hair on my head. I didn’t want to think about what else I had written. I wanted to climb up onto the expressway overpass and let the traffic pulverize me. Instead I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. My wife Amanda was waiting for me at a restaurant, and I wanted to let her know that I was running late. Normally I am not this thoughtful, but I had to do something considerate to feel like less of an asshole.
There was a text waiting for me from an unknown number. “Please let it be a collection agent,” I said, and then unlocked the phone and read it.
Hello. This is Jane. Do you remember me? It certainly appears so. I came across your website and found a story you wrote about me. I suggest you take it down. Right now.
My bowels filled up with water. This is my body’s natural response to fear, as though there are copper wires that run directly from my brain to my rectum. I picked up my pace, power-walking over the West 4th Street bridge into South Boston. I kept enough composure to reply to her text.
I’m sorry. I’ll take the story down. Give me ten minutes.
Something told me not to cave in, that I was protected by the first amendment, but then I pictured Jane sitting at the center of a pentagram with a book of spells in her lap. So I admitted fault and agreed to her terms, hoping that would be the end of it.
It was not. A moment later my phone buzzed again.
You wrote about my personal life. Things I revealed to you in confidence. To me they are real but to u they are entertainment. That entire story was a judgment on my character and my life. You are so low. You must really hate yourself.
I was two blocks from my house. I could have waited and put some thought into my response, but I desperately wanted to resolve this matter.
You’re absolutely right. I do hate myself. I’m sorry. The story will be down in five minutes.
A minute later, she replied. To think some drug addict is passing judgment on me. Ha. That’s the real humor. Maybe I’ll write a story about that, on my own blog. The loser drug addict with Crohn’s Disease who sits at home shitting his pants and writing terrible things about people. Wouldn’t that be funny?
I was tempted to tell her I’d already covered that topic ad nauseam, but instead I unlocked my front door and ran up the stairs to my condo, went straight for my laptop, and deleted the story from my website. The story’s gone. Again, I’m truly sorry. My intent was not to hurt you or pass judgment on you in any way. I write about life experiences, that’s all. Besides, no one reads my blog. J Anyway, I deleted the story. It’s over.
I hit send and waited a few minutes while I calmed down. Then I splashed cold water on my face, changed my shirt and headed out for the restaurant to meet my wife for dinner.
Ten minutes later I arrived at Loco, part taqueria, part oyster bar. Amanda sat at a two-top by the back wall, a half-finished margarita in front of her. She saw me and smiled, and I immediately felt at ease.
“Do you want to start with something from the raw bar?” she asked.
“Sounds good,” I said, and then I felt a buzz against my leg. Another text. I looked down at it.
Nothing is over.
“Let’s get six Island Creek oysters and six of these other ones,” Amanda said. “Danny? Why do you look pale? Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I feel great,” I said, grabbing a menu.
The server took our order, and as soon as he walked away the phone buzzed again. I tried to ignore it by engaging Amanda in constant conversation, broaching topics that normally didn’t interest me, anything to keep her talking and me distracted. “So, tell me more about your spinning class,” I said. “Who’s your favorite instructor?”
I listened and nodded and asked more questions, my leg buzzing sporadically throughout our entire meal, these tiny electric shocks reminding me what an asshole I was.
After the server cleared our plates, Amanda excused herself to use the restroom, leaving me alone with a cache of unread hate mail. They can’t all be from her, I thought, but when I checked I saw eight texts from Jane. I unlocked my phone. There were pages of texts, some short, some infinitely long. I scrolled through them, noticing certain phrases and keywords. A few that stood out: …I’m not mad. A pussy-ass like you could never make me mad…I knew there was something cowardly about you…no wonder you’re old and single…you’re a degenerate junkie…How’s it feel knowing you’ll be wearing diapers in a few years?...Your bulge is pathetic…
And the last one, which I read in its entirety: Watch out. You have no idea who the fuck you messed with. Hahaha.
I deleted all of her texts and blocked her number. Then I kindly asked the server for the check.
Though I didn’t mention any of this to Amanda, she noticed my increased concern for home security in the following weeks. At first I took sensible measures, like locking both doors at night and keeping a Louisville Slugger next to the bed. Soon, however, my actions became more paranoid. The cat was no longer allowed outdoors, which resulted in twice the amount of scratched walls and furniture. I burned sage throughout our rooms, giving the entire condo the fresh odor of hot garbage. After that I made some décor changes. “What’s with all the crucifixes on the walls?” Amanda said.
I lashed back at her. “You’re the one who always says we need more artwork. Now I show an interest, and you criticize it.”
I worried about potential legal implications. The story had been removed from the internet, but what if Jane copied it to her desktop as evidence? Could she sue me for defamation of character? I asked my friend, Eric, a litigator. “It’s hard to say,” he said. “There is something called the Freedom of Art Act. It grants leeway to artists who use real life experiences in creative ways.” This gave me some peace of mind, though I doubted that my stories qualified as art, considering half of them are about bowel disease.
Then there was the ethical dilemma. On this I consulted my therapist. “What am I supposed to do?” I said. “I write about my life. Sometimes that involves other people. Surely I can’t be the only person who deals with this problem.”
“Hm,” said my shrink, staring off into his infinite wisdom. “Maybe you could ask their permission before writing about them?”
I thought of how I might pose this question to Maggie, a former girlfriend who was currently the subject of a three-part series. “Hey Maggie. I know it’s been a while, and the last time we saw each other you threatened my life, but I’m writing a story about our relationship and I’m wondering if you’d be comfortable with it. It includes details about your alcoholism and multiple venereal diseases, as well as the Xanax I stole from your underwear drawer. The story will live on the internet and will be promoted on social media. Oh, and the title is Trainwreck.”
There were others, a supporting cast of ex-girlfriends, former drug dealers, employers, neighbors, CCD teachers and childhood friends. I pluck our relationships from the real world and render them in a way that will best serve a particular story, molding their characters for the sake of theme and structure. And while the light shines harshest on my own folly, these other characters become paper targets, defenseless against a one-sided assault that I call truth. Is this ethical? Is it art, or is it cyber-bullying? Am I telling stories or am I exacting revenge?
“Why do you write these stories, Danny?” my shrink said.
I thought about it for a minute. “Because I’m insecure, and angry, and small, and sick. And I guess I just need to talk about it.”
“Interesting,” he said, yawning and checking his watch.
In spite of this epiphany I kept writing, and two weeks later I posted Trainwreck: Part One, the first of three stories about my incendiary romance with “Maggie”. Maggie was a loud, obnoxious drunk that craved attention and often got it in the tackiest ways, like staggering into a room full of people and lifting her dress over her head. Or dry humping strangers at parties. Or sobbing at a breakfast café until the server brought her Bloody Mary. Whether consciously or not, this was someone who wanted a story written about her. I was just the investigative journalist, observing her erratic behavior while hooking up with her and stealing her benzodiazepines.
Writing Trainwreck pulled my attention away from Jane, and by early August I had forgotten all about her. It’s funny how quickly a short amount of time can totally change one’s mindset: in the days following her texts, I was certain I’d get a subpoena in the mail, or, worse, a giftwrapped cow’s tongue. But after a month it was as though nothing happened, the whole incident flypapered from my consciousness. Until of course that lovely August morning when I stepped out of my house and saw my Jeep’s windshield smashed. Then it all came flooding back into my bones.
“Danny, we live in the city. People get their cars broken into all the time. It’s not personal,” said Amanda, later that evening.
“Okay, Sherlock. Why would someone smash the windshield instead of a side window? Or better yet, why would they smash anything at all seeing as that my top was down and my doors were unlocked?”
“Then it was drug addicts,” she said. “They probably went through your car, looking for something to steal, found nothing and then smashed your windshield because they were pissed!”
“Always quick to blame drug addicts,” I said, wagging my finger. “Leave the drug addicts out of this. They wouldn’t do this to me. We have a mutual understanding. Besides, drug addicts want to get high, not vandalize.”
“Fine,” Amanda said. “Then it was kids doing stupid kid things. The point is this kind of shit happens all the time. This city is filled with idiots and life is filled with random coincidences. It doesn’t mean someone’s after you.”
I needed another opinion, so I called my friend, Dave, and told him about the windshield. “Jesus,” he said. “You think it was Trainwreck?”
I hadn’t even thought of that. Before I could respond Dave listed off six other possible suspects, all people I had written about in the last year. Among them were Justin, a childhood friend who now lives in his parents’ attic, like Boo Radley; Bill, the pedophile Home Depot employee with the incontinent dog; Carol, the married woman I did mushrooms with back in 1999; and Luis, the drug dealer and El Salvadorian gang member, who I’ve described in detail, should any DEA agents stumble onto my blog.
The point: it could be anyone. Every story unearths a new reason for someone to hate me. Take for instance Tommy Donovan, a kid from my neighborhood. Even as a child, Tommy was a sociopathic animal. He sexually harassed the elderly woman who collected cans on his street. He routinely broke into his neighbor’s house, using their phone to call 900 numbers. On summer nights he’d walk through the high school baseball field, fully nude, boasting about it the next day, telling people how he took a shit on third base or masturbated in right field. I haven’t written this story yet, but I will. I have to. And I can’t imagine the real Tommy Donovan reading it someday and looking back fondly on his childhood.
“Why don’t you write about nice things?” my mother says, every time I see her. “Like Maeve Binchy. I just read a wonderful book of hers about aging and finding love later in life. It takes place in a small town outside Dublin. The characters are wonderful. Why can’t you write stories like that?” Then she adds, “Stories that aren’t so hurtful.”
There’s a long answer to this question, one that includes Freudian self-analysis and literary buzzwords like absurdist and artistic expression. But when I start talking like this I sound like a jerkoff. So instead I say, “I don’t know, mom. I just think that stuff is funny.” That’s the extent of it. Things happen in life, and I like to curate them. It may be unethical, or trashy, or cheap, or ugly, or whatever. But it’s the way I do it, and will continue to do it as such, so long as there are priests that can bless my condo once a month, and pepper spray that fits into my wife’s purse.
* * * *
A week later, I saw my neighbor standing on the sidewalk in front of his house. His arms were folded, as usual, but there was something different about his face. He looked distant instead of watchful. I said hello and asked how he was doing, and he shook his head.
“My daughter got arrested last night,” he said.
I looked at the red Mercury Sable. It was quiet and still, not vibrating with the bass of some hip-hop song, as was usually the case. “Jesus,” I said. “What happened?”
John spat out a wad of phlegm. “Her and that fuckin’ asshole boyfriend. Cops busted them for possession. They were walkin’ up and down West 6th Street, with a baseball bat, smashing in car windshields. When they searched her they found two grams of meth. That’s her third drug charge in two years. Now they got her on destruction of property, too.” His jaw trembled, and he started to cry. “Dumb fuckin’ asshole,” he said, covering his face.
I wanted to tell him how relieved I was to hear this, that for the last seven days I thought I’d been targeted by a satanic cult, when it was his daughter all along. But it wasn’t the right time. Instead I walked over and stood next to him on the sidewalk. “It’s all right, John,” I said. “Some people have to hit bottom, but she’ll make it back. She’s going to be fine.”
I didn’t believe a word of this. The fact is that most people don’t make it back, and John’s daughter was no exception to the rule. But who am I to say this? Sometimes honesty isn’t that important. Sometimes it’s as bullshit as everything else.
The summer I was thirteen, my cousin, Billy, hired me at his landscaping company. This thrilled me to no end. Having grown up with two older sisters and a chronically disappointed father, Billy was my only male role model, the closest thing I had to an older brother. He was in his mid-twenties at the time, handsome, muscular and intense, with naturally dark Italian skin, brooding eyes, a big smile and a great head of thick, wavy hair. By contrast, I was skinny, fair-skinned and dainty, with hair so straight and downy it couldn’t even hold a part. I did whatever I could to toughen up my image—pushups, ripped jeans, black t-shirts—but it’s hard to be intimidating when your head looks like a dandelion.
Working alongside my cousin—outdoors in the sun, pushing heavy equipment—would grandfather me into the world of toughness. Landscapers were the Roman soldiers of suburban life. They patrolled the streets in green trucks, smoking cigarettes, whistling at girls and listening to classic rock. To ride with them would be a significant leap in masculinity, especially given my current part-time job bagging groceries at Star Market, where I stood like a goof for three hours a day, wearing a blue smock, watching food drift toward me in slow motion.
“You up for this, mush?” Billy said, sitting behind the wheel of his pickup, the engine grumbling. Whenever he wanted to talk to me, or anyone in my family, he just drove his truck into our driveway, honked the horn, lit a cigarette and waited for someone to come out. That’s how cool he was.
“I’ll start you off three days a week, Monday to Wednesday, then we’ll take it from there.” He flicked ash from his cigarette. His palms were calloused and grease-stained, whereas mine were soft and pink. “You’ll be the low man, and you’ll be doing a lot of shit work, but if you stick with it, you’ll get more responsibility. By the time you turn sixteen, you could be driving your own truck, running your own crew.”
Driving my own truck? I envisioned myself jumping from the back of a pickup, wearing a trucker hat and aviator sunglasses. Or hurling tractor-trailer tires one by one onto a pile. Or tearing apart an aluminum shed with a crow bar. The fantasies were endless.
There were three of us in Billy’s crew: Billy, myself, and a 23-year old amateur body-builder named Tommy. We looked like a traveling Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot: two bare-chested models and a random kid that someone threw in for the sake of diversity. While they worked the heavy equipment, like the industrial mower or the weed whacker, I pushed around a small, consumer-grade lawnmower, like the one my dad used at home. My job was to cut the edges of the lawns as well as any narrow sections that the power mower couldn’t reach. This took about fifteen minutes. Then I looked on with envy as the other two operated the real machines. They were surgical, a pair of commandos working in perfect synchronicity. One day, I thought. One day.
“Hey! Dipshit!” Billy walked toward me, carrying the weed whacker like a machine gun, his biceps bulging with veins. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but his voice scared me, so I sat upright in the grass and put my boots back on while he loomed over me. “Huh? Nothing. I’m just waiting for you guys to finish,” I said, gesturing toward the backyard, a half-eaten Fruit Roll-Up in my hand.
“Waiting for us to finish?” Billy repeated in disbelief. “You lay in the grass and take your shoes off while we’re out here working?”
“My feet hurt,” I said. Then, softly: “These are new boots.”
“Jesus Mary Mother of God,” he said, wiping his hand across his face. “Never, absolutely never, should you sit down. If you finish before us you ask ‘what else can I do?’ Or you get on your hands and knees and start pulling up weeds. Or you run to the store and get us cold drinks. You don’t lay down in the sun and eat a fucking fruit snack that your mommy packed for you.” He walked away, shaking his head. “Unfuckingbelievable.”
For the rest of the afternoon I kept my head down and stayed quiet. I took my time with the mower, retracing each path at least twice. When I finished I scoured the lawn for weeds. If I couldn’t find any I’d pick up anything—pebbles, acorns, gum wrappers, blades of discolored grass—and store it in my pocket. I was afraid to stop moving.
That Wednesday I got my first paycheck. A hundred and twenty bucks, cash. Twice as much than I ever made in a week at Star Market. And this was just the beginning.
I felt more comfortable in my second week, a little seasoned, confident that as long as I kept moving I would avoid any scrutiny. I can do this, I thought as I pushed the mower around the fringe of a million-dollar home on Commonwealth Avenue, easing into a nice rhythm. That rhythm came to a grinding halt, however, when I mowed directly onto a rock garden. I would have seen it coming had my eyes been open, but I was lost in a daydream, an imaginary place where I was tanned and muscular and in charge of my own landscaping company.
“It just stopped working?” Billy said, wafting away the black smoke. He tilted the mower on its side and inspected the undercarriage. The blade was mangled. “This just happened out of nowhere? Is that what you’re telling me?” he said, his chest and shoulders heaving up and down as though priming his own rage.
“Maybe I hit a rock, I don’t know,” I said, my lip quivering.
“Maybe you hit a rock?” he said. It occurred to me that most of our dialogue consisted of me saying something and then Billy repeating it in disbelief.
There was nothing else to do but shrug. Billy pushed the broken mower back to his truck, loaded it onto the trailer and then drove off, returning an hour later with a replacement model.
“You just set us back two houses,” Billy said as he gave me the new mower. “From now on, fucking pay attention.”
My next paycheck was eighty bucks, forty less than my regular wage. When I told my father, he said that was most likely the cost of the lawnmower repair, deducted from my salary. “Being an idiot has consequences, son. How long have I been telling you this?”
“Can’t people make mistakes?” I asked.
“Of course,” my mother said. “As long as they learn from them.”
After that conversation I gained a new appreciation for mistakes, and thus I went easier on myself when I made them. “From now on, never fill up the mower’s gas tank on the lawn, in case there’s a leak,” I said, looking down at a circle of burnt yellow grass, the size of a manhole cover. When I forgot to load the leaf blower onto the trailer one day after a job, I made a mental note to check at least once before saying I was “absolutely positive” about something. “Now I know,” I said to myself, while Billy drove back to retrieve the blower from the last house, three towns over.
By the end of June my schedule had dropped from three days a week to two. Billy said it was only temporary, until he secured some more clients. By mid-July it was down to one day a week. “Summer’s a slow time of year for landscaping,” he said, but I think it had something to do with Mr. Cosgrove’s bed of daffodils, which I mistook for weeds and subsequently ripped from the soil, one by one.
As my schedule shrank, so did my responsibilities. I spent less time cutting grass and more time guarding the trailer, which, up until then, had not been a concern. Most of the equipment was in use while the truck was parked, so all I really protected were a stack of orange cones. “You can never be too cautious in some neighborhoods,” Billy shouted as he disappeared over the rolling hills of a three-acre front lawn.
Finally, in late July, I quit. “I’d like to devote more time to my friends,” I told Billy. “This is the last summer we have before high school.” The truth, of course, was that I was incompetent, and I finally owned up to it. Being incompetent is one thing, but actually knowing you’re incompetent is a hard reality to face.
At the end of August I went to Star Market and got back my job as a grocery bagger. They gave me a twenty-five cent raise and said in three months I could get promoted to cashier, which paid five-fifty an hour. Cashiers had always intimidated me; they knew all types of register codes by memory and were responsible for depositing their cash in a rubber bag that was then locked and signed over to a manager. With proper training, though, I knew I could do it. What’s more, cashiers didn’t wear blue smocks, just a white collared shirt with a nametag and necktie. Maybe I was more suited for the white-collar world, after all. There was no shame in that.
By October I forgot all about landscaping. There were fleeting moments, up in the Star Market break room, when I imagined Billy, Tommy and myself, sitting on our Igloo coolers, eating Italian subs, smelling freshly cut grass and talking about the Red Sox. Then I’d snap out of it and bring my attention back to the break room, where I shared a table with Heather, Michelle, Caitlin and Brenda, listening to another of their fierce debates on who was better, Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul.
* * * *
It’s been over twenty-five years, and I’ve long since accepted my ineptitude when it comes to anything handy. In 2006 I bought a fixer-upper condo in South Boston at a great price, and the only upgrades I’ve done in ten years were replacing a screen door and assembling three bookshelves that I bought at Target. The screen door was a surprising success, but the bookshelves have buckled and leaned over time. They were intended to be an astute symbol of knowledge, but have instead become a haunting foreshadow of old age.
My lack of interest in renovating was likely due to my dependency on drugs and alcohol, a habit that required a great deal of time and money to maintain on a daily basis. When I got sober, in 2013, I rededicated my home improvement efforts, starting with a bathroom update. I bought new fixtures, ceramic tiles and a gallon of paint. Then I found a handyman on Angie’s List and paid him $1500 to do all the work. He finished it in one weekend, and it looked great. It was time for the next project: my condo’s front door. This I tackled sixteen months later.
The door had been an eyesore from day one. It’s shade of dark brown went out of style in the 1600s, a time when “plain” was fashionable and aesthetics were seen as devil worship. The knob and deadbolt were reinforced with steel plating, presumably to safeguard against burglars, or, considering my neighborhood, Drug Enforcement Agents. The wood in the frame had decayed so much over the last century that the screws would no longer hold the hinges. This made the door uneven, so it could only open forty-five degrees before it got stuck against the floor. I’ve heard real estate people say that a modern kitchen sets the tone for an entire house, but in my experience nothing says “welcome home” like a quality front door, the premium kind that opens and closes.
I bought a door from Home Depot and hired my handyman to install it. “No problem,” he said. “Shouldn’t take more than a few hours.” But the job wasn’t that easy. He couldn’t get the door to shut, no matter how much he measured and shaved and sanded. It fit perfectly in the frame, but once he attached the hinges it overshot the jamb by a half inch. “This door is exactly the same goddamn size as that door,” he said, pointing to the old door that leaned against my kitchen wall. Over and over the handyman went through the same ordeal: he removed the door, sanded the edges down, then put it back on, but still it banged against the jamb, refusing to shut. Eventually he tried forcing it in, growling as he leaned into it with all his weight. “Goddammit!” he screamed. “The fuck is wrong with you?!”
By ten o’clock he was on his knees, trembling, whispering to the door, asking how it could be so fucking cruel.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he finally said. “The old door fits. The new one doesn’t. They’re both the same size. I can’t explain it.” His voice was shaky, the way a person talks when nobody believes them about the flying saucer or the talking chair.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, getting my checkbook. I was tired and frustrated just from watching him. “How much do I owe you?”
“I can’t charge you,” he said. “I didn’t do the job.”
I offered to pay him half his quote but he refused. Still, I had to give him something for the effort, so I handed him all the cash I had on me. “At least buy yourself some dinner,” I said. “Or pick up some flowers for your girlfriend.”
He looked down at the twelve bucks in his hand. “Thanks. This is…generous.”
“Why don’t you just call my dad?” my wife, Amanda, said when she got home and found me sitting in the dark, holding my brand new stainless steel deadbolt, turning the lock in and out, in and out. Click-click, click-click.
“He’ll know what to do,” she said. “He could probably finish the door in an afternoon, and then we’ll take him out to dinner afterward. He loves helping out family.”
My father-in-law, Armand, is a contractor. He knows how to build things, and he understands how things work. If he comes across something he doesn’t understand, he will study it and tinker with it until it makes sense to him. He is naturally curious and patient. When he walks down a city block he stops and looks up at things: buildings, scaffolding, highway overpasses, anything. My brain does not work this way. I am naturally impetuous. If I come across something I don’t understand, I figure it must not be important. When I walk down the street I ignore the wonders of everyday life, opting instead to talk to myself and craft elaborate insults for use in later conversations.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s call him.” I should have done this from the start, as my wife suggested three weeks ago, but I didn’t want to bother him with what I assumed would be a menial task. That and I wanted him to think I was capable. Or at least capable enough to hire someone else to do a decent job.
My in-laws drove up the following Sunday. As soon as Armand hopped out of his Dodge Ram I felt at ease. He was dressed for work: flannel shirt, Wrangler jeans, a tape measure and cell phone clipped to his belt and a pencil behind his ear. This was a professional, unlike my handyman, who showed up in sweatpants and an Ed Hardy t-shirt.
Once we got up to my condo, I offered him a drink. “Can I get you anything? We have coffee, soda, Perrier…” But he was already inspecting the door, slowly opening and closing it, carefully watching the hinges.
“The new door won’t fit because the hinges stick out,” my father-in-law said. “See that? On the old door, the hinges are mortised, which means they’re set into the wood, flush against the edge of the door.”
He had figured this out in thirty seconds. The handyman spent six hours agonizing over it and it nearly drove him insane. “That’s amazing,” I said. “Can we fix it?”
“Sure, we just cut mortises in the new door.”
“What’s a mortise?” I said.
He took a breath, then explained it again.
“Do you have a mortise-cutting tool?”
“We chisel them out,” he said.
“With what?” I said.
“With a chisel. But first we need to deal with this frame. It’s in rough shape. We’ll reinforce the wood, fill in all these cracks with Durabond, and then deal with those holes.” He pointed to the bottom hinge. “Those screws won’t hold the hinges firm against the doorjamb because the wood has been drilled and re-drilled so many times. So we’ll fix that, too.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “What can I do?”
“You can run down to my truck and get some more tools. Do you have a power drill?”
“I have a screwdriver,” I said. “A Philips head, I think. Will that work?”
Armand handed me his keys. “That’s okay. On the front-left side of the pickup is a case that says Dewalt. Grab that. Behind that you’ll see a blue tote bag. Inside there’s a box of wooden matchsticks and some Elmer’s glue. Just grab the whole bag. On the other side of the truck you’ll see my gray toolbox. Under the tray is a plastic bag filled with four-inch toggle screws. Bring those. Then, on the floor of the back seat, there’s an impact gun. And that’s all we need.”
I ran down to the truck, grabbed the tools and carried them back up. “This is the impact gun, right?” I said, holding it in the air.
“That’s a bicycle pump.” He laughed. “It’s okay. No big deal.” He looked into the tote bag. “You couldn’t find the toggle screws?”
“That’s right, I forgot to ask; what’s a toggle screw?”
He described it to me. I ran down, grabbed the impact gun and the toggle screws, and ran back up to the condo. “Toggle screws?” I said, holding my palm out.
Armand smiled. “Nope, those are wall anchors,” he said.
I watched Armand work all morning. He filled in the screw holes by rolling together a handful of matchsticks, dipping them in glue, then hammering them into each hole. He was calm and focused while he worked, staring down over the round eyeglasses that rested on the tip of his nose.
“I wish I knew how to do this kind of stuff,” I said.
“Everyone has their own skillset,” he said. “That’s how the world works. I do my thing; you do yours.” I thought about my thing. The previous Friday I spent the whole day writing copy for Walmart, four pages of announcements that began with “Spring forward with 20% off any purchase…”
Next, Armand used the impact gun to drill the toggle screws through the doorframe and into the wall. The gun made a loud, grinding sound, like a fork caught in a garbage disposal. It vibrated through the entire wall and reminded me of the implants I had done at the dentist, the previous spring.
“Can I try that?” I asked. He handed me the gun and coached me, but when it came time to pull the trigger I hesitated, causing the screw to slip and a piece of the frame to come splintering off.
“We’ll fix that with the Durabond,” he said. “I’ll mix it up when I finish this.”
“I can mix it,” I said. “It’s like pancake batter, right?”
“Sort of,” he said. “How’s this for a plan: I’ll mix the Durabond, and you run down to the truck and grab my iced coffee. It’s in the cup holder. Dark brown liquid, clear plastic cup, straw sticking out.”
At 1:00, my wife grabbed us a couple sandwiches for lunch. “Take a break, Pop,” I yelled from the kitchen, my lips orange from Cool Ranch Doritos. But he politely refused and kept lathering the doorframe with Durabond. “I’ll be over there to help in a minute,” I said, one hand holding my BLT while the other scrolled through my Instagram feed.
Once all the Durabond had dried it was time to hang the door. I held it in place while Armand drilled in the screws. “Please hurry, it’s slipping,” I said, my face turning red.
“All set,” Armand said. I let go of the door, staggered across the living room and flopped down on the couch. “I think I threw out my back,” I said, reaching for the TV remote.
Armand made a few adjustments, and ten minutes later the door was up. He gave it a gentle push. The door opened swung open, straight and smooth. “Wow,” I said from the floor, where I laid across my back roller. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s tight,” Armand said as he closed it. “We need to sand down the edge a little bit.”
We got on our knees and sanded. “This hurts my fingers,” I said. I got a bandana from my bedroom and tied it around my mouth, then I put on my wife’s gardening gloves and resumed the work. “I don’t want to breathe in this shit.” Armand nodded, sanding away with his bare hands while a cloud of sawdust sprayed in his face.
At four o’clock the door was finished. Armand installed the knob and the deadbolt and then handed me the keys. “That should do it,” he said. “It needs to be painted, but I’ll let you take care of that.”
“How about a celebration dinner!” I said. “Let me just wash up first.” An hour later I was showered and ready, wearing jeans, my Timberland boots, a flannel shirt, and the foam wrist brace I sometimes wore for my carpel tunnel. I thought the manual labor might cause it to flare up, and I didn’t want to take any chances.
* * * *
The next time I saw my father-in-law was two months later. He came up to help me fill in a hole in my living room wall. The hole was a vent for a gas heater, but since I don’t own one or plan on buying one, I figured I’d cover it up permanently. My temporary solution, for the last ten years, was a piece of cardboard box, scotch-taped to the wall. This no longer passed my new set of living standards. Call me snobbish, but I wanted my walls to be 100% plaster.
Armand and I went to Home Depot for supplies. We took our time, browsing through each section. I asked about things that had eluded me my whole life, like why it was called a “two-by-four” if it came in different sizes. Armand answered my questions in the simplest possible way, without a trace of sarcasm.
At the register, Armand explained the exact process of filling in that hole in my living room wall. “We’ll patch it with sheetrock and tape, then lay on some Durabond, sand it down and then paint over it. It’ll be like the hole was never even there.”
I thought about that, then I thought about the last thirty years of my life.
“Sound like a plan,” I said.
This is the third and final installment of the Sinatra Suite trilogy. Scroll down for parts 1 and 2. You can start here if you'd like, but I always find things make more sense when I start from the beginning...
When do you first tell someone that you love them? I’ve asked this question several times over the years. The most common answer is this: When it feels right.
When someone tells me to do what feels right, my mind wanders into a nebulous place. In my experience, what feels right is the opposite of what is right. As a child it felt right to talk about my friends behind their backs because it gave me the attention I craved and the sense of worth I lacked. In high school it felt right to get my hair permed, even though it involved sitting under a hooded dryer in between two middle-aged women. With Kate, it felt right to tell her I loved her on the phone, early on a Sunday morning, after I’d been up all night, snorting cocaine with the comedian in 3F.
“I’m physically sick without you, Kate, like there's this smoldering andiron in the pit of my stomach and the longer we're apart it just absorbs all of my loneliness and hatred. It's about to burst. I can see it, my stomach, it's expanding right before my eyes."
“We talked about this, Danny. That's your Crohn's Disease, and you need to see a doctor.”
“I need you, Kate,” I said. “Once I get back to Boston I’ll be fine. Trust me, it’s gonna be great. Me, you, a new life, a new job, good health…Jesus Christ, I gotta pull it together.”
There was a long sigh on the other end. “We can’t keep having this same conversation,” she said, her voice getting firm. “I don’t want you waiting by the phone all day, and I don’t want you dropping your entire life and coming back to Boston just for me. I can’t make these big future plans with you all the time. It’s a ton of pressure and I don’t want to resent you.”
“Resentment’s fine, if it means we’re together.”
“It’s too early in the morning for this,” she said.
“I can call you back, say…one hour?”
“Good bye, Danny.”
My face twitched and my teeth gnashed together. “I love you,” I said, throwing it out there. In the silence that followed I envisioned Kate lying in bed, the phone against her ear as she poised herself to cross the threshold and tell me that she loved me, too. Instead I heard two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
* * * *
The following Tuesday I saw a gastroenterologist at Cedars Sinai Hospital for the pain in my stomach. To my surprise, the prognosis was not a “pit full of loneliness and hatred”, but likely a Crohn’s Disease flare-up. My belly was distended and sensitive to the touch, and the pain had grown constant, a steady burn throughout my entire midsection. I had lost fifteen pounds since January and my skin had gone from pasty white to translucent. I couldn’t get beyond the first two bites of any meal. My bowel movements felt like acid rain trickling out of my anus.
This was familiar territory. I’d had two prior Crohn’s flare-ups back east, both treated in the same archaic manner: starvation. In each case the pain proliferated, in spite of my fasting, and I was eventually admitted to the hospital, where I laid in bed for a week, hooked up to an IV, until things “calmed down”. Though I felt reasonably cared for, these hospitalizations seemed to be lacking something. That something was science. When I asked if there was medicine that could help expedite my recovery, or at least numb the pain, the doctor shook his head solemnly. “Your body needs time to heal, to work these maladies out of your system.” This was the kind of response one would expect from the Amish, not from a man with a white coat and a medical degree, and least of all not in Boston, a city renowned for its healthcare. I wanted to take a pill and feel better, not lay in bed for a month rubbing taro root on my stomach.
In Los Angeles, treatment for Crohn’s Disease is far more progressive. After pushing on my belly a few times the doctor went straight for her prescription pad. “We can either run a series of invasive tests,” she said, “or I can send you home on a high dose of steroids and Vicodin. You’ll feel better in a day or two.” Along with the prescriptions she handed me a CD, the cover of which had an illustration of the tree of life superimposed over Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. “Stress can often activate an inflamed bowel,” she said. “This is a guided Kireiki meditation, used for body healing and chakra alignment. Try this, along with the Vicodin and Prednisone, and you should pull out of this flare-up.”
This kind of healthcare was more my speed. Rather than rely on my body’s natural ability to heal, I placed my trust in a combination of narcotics and what the meditation referred to as “Positive Visualization”—essentially day-dreaming oneself back to health. I put the CD in my stereo, took three Vicodin and listened as a gentle English voice led me through a forest. I was told to listen to the sounds of the birds chirping and twigs snapping under my feet; to notice the rich color of the trees; to feel the moisture in the air and breathe in its sweetness. I added my own jungle-related touches here and there, like a friendly brontosaurus, raising its head from a patch of tall grass, and some Viet Cong snipers, who waved hello from treetops.
The voice led me to a clearing in the forest, where a lagoon magically appeared. “Wade into the lagoon,” the English voice instructed. “Notice the water is neither warm nor cold. Feel your body get lighter with every step. Now submerge yourself,” the voice continued. “Swim down to the lagoon’s floor. There is no resistance. The deeper you dive the lighter you will feel. Notice the bubbles in your wake; these are your body’s negative energies, cleansed by the purity of the lagoon.”
The bottom of the lagoon was dark and murky. Gradually a form took shape: an arm, reaching out toward me from the nothingness. In its clenched hand was a rose. Streams of light cascaded down, illuminating the rose, casting a halo around it. “Take the rose and swim back to the surface,” the voice said. I did. As I ascended, the water got lighter and clearer, until finally I emerged through the lagoon’s surface, rose in hand. Next the voice instructed me to float on my back and stare up at the sky. “Now, place the rose on your chest. Feel the sun’s warmth on your face,” the voice said. “Feel yourself being reborn, becoming whole again.”
Sitar music faded up, along with gently lapping waves, signaling the end of the meditation. It was an odd place to end, me floating on my back, so to bring a better sense of closure I put the rose in my teeth and swam ashore. Then I walked through more woods until I arrived at the edge of a lake, where I stood and waited for a rubber raft filled with commandos to pick me up and give me a lift back to reality.
Whenever my stomach pain got really bad at work, which was every few hours, I meditated, locking myself in a storage closet on the Sony Pictures lot, my portable CD player in hand. I’d sit on a stack of copy paper, shut the light off and transport myself to the same oasis, diving into the same lagoon and reaching for the same rose. With each journey I got a clearer glimpse of the person handing me the rose, and each time it looked more like Kate, her yellow-blonde hair floating around her head like tentacles. I became obsessed with the mystery and everything it entailed: the stomach pain, the Vicodin, the imaginary escape. After a week I was using the Kirieki CD ten times a day.
“Are you on something?” Kate said, half-asleep, her voice muffled by a pillow. I’d called her at 2:30 AM her time, after taking a dozen Vicodin over a four-hour period. I told her about everything: the forest, the lagoon, the rose, the friendly dinosaurs, the Viet Cong. Everything.
“I’ve found a metaphysical channel that connects us,” I said, pacing around my bedroom, scratching my legs so vigorously that my fingertips were bloody. My heart thudded against my breastplate in triple time. “Have you seen the lagoon, Kate? Have you? That’s me at the bottom, Kate. Me. I’m the guy…I’m the guy…you give me the rose. Me.”
Kate begged me to go to sleep. I tried explaining that the lagoon only appeared when conscious, but I couldn’t complete a full sentence. I had taken so many painkillers that my throat was closing, which made swallowing difficult. I’d speak a few words and then stop to gasp for air. “If I drive…straight through…I can be in…Boston...in forty…hours.”
No response. “Kate?” Silence, then two clicks, followed by a dial tone.
I hit redial until dawn. The line was busy. The pain in my stomach mushroomed out to my ribcage. I took more Vicodin.
I slept for a few hours and starting calling again at dawn. At nine Kate’s phone was ringing, and by mid-afternoon someone finally picked up. It was her roommate, Maura. She told me Kate was out, but refused to elaborate when I asked where she was, who she was with, or how she was dressed.
“Fine. When you see her, tell her my flight lands in Boston at eight, and the town car will take me directly to your apartment,” I said, slamming the phone down and realizing that 8:00 PM was in two hours.
An hour later Eric poked his head into my bedroom. He and Frank were going to a 7:00 showing of The Matrix and, keen to my recent isolation and despair, asked if I wanted to join. “I’m good, but thanks for asking,” I said, curled up in the corner of my bedroom with one hand on my stomach while the other counted out my remaining Vicodin.
I spent the night waiting by the phone, biding my time by chain-smoking and tearing random objects to shreds. I started with the covers to all of our paperback books. Next were the wall posters: The Who, Reservoir Dogs, Pamela Anderson. I followed this with a box of Band-Aids, removing them from their individual packages, tearing them up, and then finishing with the box. All shreds were stacked in neat piles on the floor, like rock cairns. My bedroom looked like an ancient Indian burial ground. Once all the paper-based objects were torn up I moved on to different materials, finally tiring myself out on a pair of flip-flops. The phone never rang once.
I tried to use the Kireiki meditation and revisit the enchanted forest, but my mind transported me to a darker place, where it was cloudy and bleak instead of bright and clear. Rather than chirping birds, I heard creaky screen doors and howling wind. The friendly dinosaurs were gone, and the Viet Cong snipers were replaced with junior-level studio executives.
At eleven I took the last of my painkillers, crawled into bed, and faded out. When I woke up, at four-thirty the next morning, I called the doctor’s emergency service. The stomach pain seared throughout my entire torso. I had vomited up two bowls of Ramen noodles, and I had a fever of a hundred and two. The doctor’s office told me to get to the ER. Immediately.
Eric dropped me off at the Cedars Sinai Emergency Room. I was triaged, examined, scanned, heavily sedated and admitted. When I woke up that afternoon, I thought I’d died and gone to a West Elm showroom. My hospital suite was bigger than my apartment. It had two rooms: one with a dining set and bookshelves, the other with a double-size bed, leather chairs, a desk, and a mahogany armoire that housed a plasma TV and an X Box. Once I realized I was in Cedars Sinai I thought of Frank Sinatra. He had died the previous summer while staying at this same hospital, so naturally I assumed this was his suite.
“Maybe. But regardless, everyone is treated like a celebrity at Cedars Sinai,” the nurse said, injecting my IV with forty milligrams of Demerol.
Tears streamed down my cheeks. The Demerol was instantaneous, like a warm blanket over my entire nervous system. “You people are so kind,” I said.
He patted my wrist, packed up his tackle box and left. I looked out my window at the sprawling hills of West L.A. The sun was beginning its descent, casting an orange glow over Hollywood. “Jesus Christ, this is good shit,” I said, a snot bubble popping in my nostril.
Every three hours a nurse would come in and inject me with Demerol. By the time the doctors arrived to outline a plan, I was drooling. They told me there was an obstruction inside my ascending colon, along with acute inflammation of the intestinal wall, and that surgery would be required to remove ten inches of colon and my appendix. “Sounds good,” I said, nodding off.
On my third day in the hospital, I called Kate. “She’s out, Danny, and I don’t know where she is,” said Sara, another of Kate’s roommates. She sounded irritated. Normally I would have taken offense and considered it some kind of coup, but I was too stoned to take anything personally.
“Okay. Just tell her I’m in the hospital, Cedars Sinai, and I’m having surgery on Friday. Tell her I hope she’s doing well. That’s all. Good bye.” The phone slid out from my hand and dropped onto the bed.
The next day Kate called back. “Danny? Oh my God, what happened? Are you okay? I came home last night and saw DANNY-HOSPITAL written on the dry erase board and I freaked out! I went to sleep and called you as soon as I woke up, after I got back from the gym and ran all my errands.”
She apologized for being distant over the last few weeks. “There’s been so much drama at work, I just don’t know how to handle it,” she said, sobbing. “I was selfish. I didn’t consider your feelings. I’m so sorry if I hurt you.”
I forgave her. We talked for another hour. She told me how much she missed me and that she’d pray for me every day. She insisted I call her regularly while I was confined to a hospital bed, which would likely be another ten days. Neither of us mentioned love, and that was fine. It wasn’t the right time. But that time would come, months from now, once I was back in Boston, healthy, amongst friends and family. I pictured Kate and us on a late-spring day, sitting on a blanket in the Boston Common, sipping red wine from paper cups, staring into each other’s eyes. Starting over. Building something true. Being our best selves. That is love.
I hung up the phone and smiled. The nurse came in and shot me up with more Demerol, and then I wept. After two months of corrosive uncertainty, of physical and psychological torment, order had been restored. I laid back, turned on the TV and flipped through some channels, but they all showed the same thing: an aerial shot of a building in what appeared to be the middle of the nowhere. “How awful” the nurse said, referring to a mass shooting that had just occurred at a Colorado high school.
“Yes. Awful,” I said, thinking of Kate and I, lying next to each other in bed, on the other side of the country.
* * * *
The surgery was successful. I woke up with cottonmouth and a row of titanium staples running vertically down my naval. The next five days were spent recovering in my suite, slowly reintroducing solid food and tapering off the pain meds. I was downgraded from Demerol to Dilaudid, which is like substituting Tylenol for heroin. The withdrawal was severe and sent me into fits of sadness and rage. Whenever the nurses checked my vitals I’d beg them for one more shot of Demerol. “I won’t bother you ever again, I swear,” I’d say, a song-and-dance that became routine behavior in the years to come.
I called Kate every day but she was never home. The night before my discharge I called every two hours. Finally someone picked up. It was Sara again. “Dude, what the fuck is your deal?” I heard laughter and Top-40 dance music in the background. Sara shouted into the phone, her words slurred together. “You are the reason we keep our phone off the hook. Do you even know that?” She told me to hold on, then screamed, then broke out laughing, then claimed she was going to piss herself. She came back to the phone. “I gotta go. See you tomorrow, Greg.”
Greg? Did Kate have another stalker? What was happening tomorrow? Was she in some kind of danger? I had to get back to Boston, fast. First I had to get out of this hospital. Then I had to quit my job. Then gain some weight. Then get the staples out of my stomach. Then pack up the Acura and leave. Two weeks, tops. I just hoped it wouldn’t be too late. My breath quickened. My heart raced. The walls of the hospital suite closed in on me. Panicking, I hit the nurse’s call button. “I think I’m having an anxiety attack,” I told her. She injected me with twenty milligrams of Valium, and a half hour later I was asleep.
I was discharged the next day. Since I didn’t know anyone who could give me a ride I took a cab back to my apartment. When I got there, Howie was sitting on the steps, smoking a cigarette, resting a bag of ice on his right hand. He told me he beat up a pimp the night before on Hollywood Blvd., then asked if I had any weed.
“I just got out of the hospital, Howie,” I said.
“For what?” he said.
“Never mind. Did I get any calls today?”
“Yeah. That chick. The one from Boston. She called twice.”
“She did? Jesus Christ, Howie. What’d she say?”
“That she misses you and loves you and can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Are you serious?” I said, gooseflesh breaking out over my body.
“No, you asshole,” Howie said, standing up from the steps, flicking away his cigarette. He laughed, then turned and went back inside.
I decided not to call Kate until I got back to Boston, where I could talk to her face-to-face. I felt less helpless now that I was out of the hospital and taking actionable steps toward my departure. After some convincing, Frank agreed to drive back to Boston with me. We discussed it on the way to the bank one afternoon. “I don’t know, things are finally starting to pan out for me here,” he said as he handed the teller a Ziploc bag filled with coins in exchange for nine crisp singles.
“Frank, nothing is going to pan out for us,” I said. “Not for us, not for anyone. This city is all make-believe. It’s fun for a little while, but it gets old.”
“I haven’t even tried acting, yet,” he said. “What if I’ve got that special something?”
“You don’t,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder.
For the next week I focused on my diet. Every three hours I ate some combination of peanut butter, eggs, potatoes or pasta. My cheeks and temples filled out. The bones and tendons in my wrists faded. My clothes fit better. I cut back on cigarettes and only smoked weed twice a day: at night, before bed, and first thing in the morning. My determination was unshakable.
I went back to the hospital for a follow-up. The surgeon plucked out the staples from my stomach and cleared me for travel, so long as I wasn’t flying. He said air travel posed a threat to a newly repaired intestine, something about the change in pressure causing the colon to crinkle and implode like a soda can under a boot heel. “I had one patient whose stitches burst open on a flight to Vancouver, poop splattered all over his insides,” he said. This stopped me in my tracks. Hearing the words “splattered poop” is drastic enough; adding the image of it dripping from a gallbladder seemed gratuitous.
Frank and I made it back to Boston in three days. We slept outdoors in Colorado the first night, splurged on a Motel 6 in Indiana the second night, and drove straight through the third night. I was on a mission, commandeering the Acura with grit and purpose and sheer will. The sun rose as we crossed the New York state line, and I charged at it like an astronaut rocketing toward earth. Somewhere I took a wrong turn and wound up in morning traffic on the Long Island Expressway. By the time we reached Interstate 95, my eyelids started sagging. Once we got to the Mass Pike I was falling asleep at the wheel.
Early that afternoon I pulled into my parents’ driveway. No one was home, which ordinarily would have been nice, except that I no longer had a house key, so I curled up on the front steps and fell asleep. Four hours later I awoke, my father standing above me. No “welcome home”, no “great to see you”. Instead he just shook his head at me, the universal expression of disgust.
I slept for a few hours and then called Kate. Maura answered. She told me Kate was working late but suggested I come over anyway. “We can meet up with her later,” she said. On another day I might have noticed the apprehension in her voice, but I was too giddy.
“I can’t believe how nervous I am,” I said, sitting in Maura’s living room that evening, fidgeting with my hands. “This is the room where it all started. I was sitting over there, and I remember Kate coming through the door but moving directly into the kitchen. I only caught a glimpse of her at first. But I knew right then that she was the one.”
Maura’s face went pale. “Danny, Kate is seeing someone. They’ve been together for a couple months. I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but it’s true. I’m sorry.”
My body shut down. My blood stopped flowing; my organs went on strike. My extremities got cold. I looked down at the floor, covered my eyes and nodded. In spite of the pain and humiliation, something about this moment made perfect sense, as if the story couldn’t end any other way. “She could have told me this earlier,” I said, massaging some feeling back into my face. “It would have spared me a long drive from Los Angeles.” I groaned. “Who is this guy?”
Maura gave me the broad strokes. He was a lawyer in his mid-thirties. They met the previous fall, when Kate was a paralegal in his department. “He doesn’t have much personality,” Maura said, trying to cushion the blow. It didn’t help. I had already formed a mental image of this man, something one might see on the cover of Fortune magazine. The big smile, the Rolex Submariner, the ten thousand dollar suit, the cigar. And a caption underneath his name that read MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING. How could I compete with that? I couldn’t even afford curtains from Target.
“I’m supposed to meet them later, at the Black Rose,” Maura said. “You’re obviously welcome to join, but I’m sure it’s the last thing you want to do.”
I couldn’t just walk away. I had to see Kate’s face. More importantly, she had to see mine. “Fuck it. Let’s go,” I said.
An hour later I was in a crowded bar in downtown Boston, squeezed into a booth with Maura, Kate, her asshole boyfriend, and four of their coworkers. The group laughed and drank pitchers of beer and told lawyer stories. Kate and her boyfriend, Greg, held center stage. Someone asked them how the show was last night. “Springsteen was great,” Greg said, “but I’d rather be on the floor instead of up in the luxury box.” Someone else asked them if they were excited about snorkeling in the Bahamas this weekend. “So long as I can close those Morgan Stanley contracts!” Greg said, prompting howls of laughter. Someone said Kate was “absolutely gorgeous” and called her and Greg “the perfect couple”. At one point Kate and I made eye contact. She gave me a sympathetic smile and mouthed the word “sorry”—our last piece of verbal discourse, ever.
One of the coworkers turned toward me. “So…Dave, right? What do you do for work?”
I nodded. “I write for a magazine.” It was the first thing that came to mind. “An op-ed column, actually.”
“Cool. What was your last story about?”
“I’ll tell you what the next one’s about. You know that girl?” I nodded toward Kate.
“Kate? Of course. She’s a sweetheart.”
“Yeah. She is.”
The guy looked confused. “Are you writing a story about her?”
I smiled at him, then pulled a wrinkled five-dollar bill out of my pocket and dropped it on the table. “Would you mind if I snuck by so I can use the men’s room? I just had a piece of my colon removed, and I think I just shit myself.”
I slid past him, walked through the crowded bar, past the men’s room, and out the door.
* * * *
I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Los Angeles. Maybe I’d be running a studio. Maybe I’d be an award-winning screenwriter. In all likelihood, I’d be working some shit job, living in a courtyard-style apartment complex, wearing shorts and flip-flops all year long, sitting on my couch, watching movies, eating frozen yogurt. I would have gotten comfortable, and that, I now understand, is the worst thing. Whether it was my fool hearted love for a woman I barely knew or a tyrannical movie producer boss or a rotten colon, the forces of nature wanted me out of Los Angeles and back in the miserable east. I think about that sometimes when my stomach hurts, or when the January wind blisters my face, or when I’m sitting in the back row of an A.A. meeting on a Saturday night. I think Life Sucks, and then I thank God for it. I thank God for pain. Without it there’d be nothing to laugh about.
There was a forty-dollar parking ticket on the windshield of my Acura. I threw it in my back seat, and then I grabbed the rose I bought on my way into the city. Originally I planned on presenting Kate with the rose, laying on some sappy bullshit about destiny and then consummating our love. Obviously that’s not how things turned out. I walked across the street and laid down the rose on a random doorstep. Maybe someone would find it and make up their own story.
That concludes the Sinatra Suite Trilogy, folks. Thanks so much for listening, and remember this: behind every epic injustice looms the shadow of an even greater fool.
When a person falls in love, the rest of the world loses its claws. Life’s aggravations become more tolerable, whether it’s a disconnected phone, or a parking ticket, or waking up in the morning to find your apartment burglarized.
“Three people asleep in the living room last night,” I said, “and not one of you wakes up while someone breaks in and rummages through our things?”
“I did wake up,” Frank said. “I thought it was you, carrying the TV out the door. I asked where you were taking it and you said ‘to the repair shop’, so I went back to sleep. Jesus, give me a break.”
Evidently Frank had been duped by the same mind trick the Grinch used when he stole Christmas. Under normal, depressive circumstances, I would have screamed at Frank, but my blooming long-distance romance with Kate had cast an optimistic glow over everything. Besides, it was hard not to see the humor in the situation, especially in the misfortune of the burglar, who couldn’t have picked a worse apartment to rob. I imagined the feeling of defeat as his flashlight scanned over sleeping bags and plastic lawn chairs. “Daddy hit the jackpot tonight, boys,” he’d say afterward. “Let’s see…antacid pills, a digital alarm clock, a pack of Marlboro Lights…” The mother lode was a Ziploc sandwich bag filled with coins, also known as my change receptacle.
“They must have been looking for a wall safe,” Frank said, examining the Reservoir Dogs poster that lay curled up on the living room floor.
“Yeah,” I said, searching the bathroom for the toothpaste tube, which had apparently been stolen as well. “These guys were professionals.”
As it turned out, the only missing item of any value was the television, and that was a minor inconvenience. The five of us had already planned on upgrading to a color set, possibly one with a nineteen-inch screen, depending on the price. In that regard, the burglary was a blessing in disguise, forcing us into the nearest K-mart the following day, where we picked out the cheapest standard definition color TV in stock.
That evening, in our nightly phone call, I told Kate about the robbery. “My God, you must be scared shitless,” she said, tipsy after a Sunday night out with the girls.
“Mostly I’m pissed I forgot to set the alarm,” I said, substituting set the alarm for close the window. “The Dutch lambskin sofa, the crystal end tables, the rear-projection television…all that stuff is replaceable, everything except for the chestnut humidor that Jack Nicholson gave me. Still, it’ll take months for the insurance claim to go through. In the meantime I’ll be living in a hovel.”
Another blessing in disguise. Earlier in the week I’d offered to fly Kate out to Los Angeles for President’s Day weekend, and she accepted. I had fretted about the condition of my apartment—the second-hand furniture, the man living in my closet—and wondered how I’d be able to put a good face on it. The robbery did just that. There was no limit to what the burglars took: chandeliers, a baby grand piano, chinchilla bathrobes, hell, maybe even an entire patio garden, brick and all.
“Bastards,” I said. “Somewhere out there a degenerate junkie is reading my original manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.” I sniffled. “He better enjoy it.”
Now that I had a valid excuse for living in squalor I focused on my roommates. Kate believed I had only one, which meant the others would have to get lost for the entire three-day weekend. Howie offered to stay with his new friend, Butterfly, who lived in a motel on Hollywood Blvd. “It could be weird, though,” he said. “We’re sort of in that gray area between plutonic and romantic.” If that didn’t work out, he cited both the beach and the downtown bus terminal as viable options. “Worst case, I can always stay at that crack house on Slauson,” he said. “The important thing is that you make a good impression on this girl.”
Graham wasn’t as flexible. Although he’d been working at a movie theater for the last month, he wasn’t comfortable asking his coworkers if he could stay with them. He said they hadn’t yet welcomed him into their clique. That clique of course being high school. After some debate, I convinced him that living out of his Dodge Caravan would be the safest bet, so long as he parked on a quiet residential street and hid inside his sleeping bag at night. I suggested a cul-de-sac off of Argyle, mainly because of the nearby donut shop with the public bathroom.
That left Frank and Eric. Since his name was on the lease, Eric technically had the right to stay, but he was the only one with friends outside of our apartment, and, as luck would have it, one of them asked if he could housesit that weekend. So by default, Frank would be my sole roommate when Kate arrived. This also worked in my favor, as he’d just started a new job as a line cook at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, where he would be for all three nights. “I’m sure you’ll get to meet her,” I said. “And when you do, let’s not say ‘line cook’. How about ‘sommelier’, or perhaps ‘board member’? That would really help us both out.”
With my apartment and roommate situations under control, I bought Kate’s plane ticket, made possible by my seven hundred-dollar Christmas bonus. Even on short notice I got a great fare, thanks to three layovers and a departure out of Portland, Maine. “Logan is absolute chaos. Flying out of Portland is much easier,” I said, neglecting to mention the two-hour drive to southern Maine, or the connections in Pittsburgh, Little Rock and Tucson. I figured as long as she got here in one piece I could blame any travel inconveniences on the airline. “Three layovers?” I’d say on the drive from LAX. “Damn union strikes. I paid for a direct flight and a first class seat.”
“I don’t think the plane had first class,” she’d say.
At which point I’d sigh, then remind myself, aloud, to fire my new assistant.
* * * *
I was nervous on the way to pick Kate up from the airport, but as soon as she walked into the gate I felt at ease. When she saw me she ran into my arms. “I’m finally here,” she said.
We hugged for a while, then I took her suitcase. “My Acura’s in the short term parking lot,” I said, referring to my car by its manufacturer. This was one of the many tactics I’d employed to improve my decorum.
Having grown up outside Detroit, Kate was impressed by the car culture of Los Angeles. After five minutes on the road we saw several Porsches, a few Bentleys, a ’67 Shelby, and two Lamborghinis. On La Brea a black Ferrari Testarossa sped past us and blew a red light. “Whoa,” Kate said. “You think that was someone famous?”
“Probably,” I said. I turned to her and smiled, then hit a button on the console, retracting the moon roof of my ’92 Acura Integra.
We took the scenic route home, heading west on Sunset, cutting up Laurel Canyon and then doubling back on Mulholland. We parked at a turnoff on the side of the road, looking out at the basin of Hollywood at night, and had our first kiss. “This is perfect,” she said, leaning against my shoulder.
“It’s just the beginning,” I said. “I’ve got a whole weekend of fun activities planned for us.”
The first fun activity was getting stoned, on my futon, in front of the TV. “Yippee!” Kate said as I handed her the pipe. She took a hit. “Promise me we’re gonna go out and do things, though. I don’t want to sit in here and smoke weed all weekend.”
“Of course we’ll go out,” I said, taking the pipe from her hand.
Before long she was curled up next to me with her eyes closed. “I knew I’d see you again,” she purred into my ear. I yawned and covered us both in a blanket, which I quickly removed once I caught a whiff of it. It smelled like pus, the same sickly odor as Frank’s knee brace, whenever he took it off and left it on the coffee table.
I turned the TV volume down, and the room eventually faded out.
An hour later I woke up, disoriented, still sitting upright on the futon, holding the pipe in one hand and the lighter in the other. I wiped a trickle of drool from my chin. As the room came into focus I noticed a rerun of Cheers on the new color TV and then heard a slow, rhythmic sawing noise. It was Kate, snoring, her head titled back and her mouth hung open. It wasn’t the hearty kind of snore that indicates a deep, restful sleep, but more of a guttural wheeze, like a dying alien, struggling to breathe after crashing its UFO on a smog-ridden planet.
“Kate,” I said, shaking her gently. She twisted away and curled up on the other side of the futon.
I looked at the clock. It was nine forty-five. I tried waking her again but she slapped my hand away and mumbled what sounded like “fuck off, Tommy”. I let her be, smoked some more weed, watched an episode of Law & Order and went to my bedroom.
When I awoke the next morning, Kate was in the kitchen eating breakfast. “God, I’m starving,” she said, standing before the open fridge, a takeout container of week-old Italian food in her hand. “So, what are we doing today?” she said, her other hand holding a clump of cold linguini.
“I thought we’d spend the afternoon in Santa Monica, hang by the pier, get lunch, you know, whatever.”
“Ooo!” she said. I’m pretty sure she meant “cool”, but her cheeks were packed with chicken parm, making it hard to form consonants.
I gave her a quick tour of the apartment, showing her where everything used to be, before the robbery. “The mid-century teak armoire stood right here,” I said, pointing at the corner of the living room normally reserved for Graham’s air mattress. “They even ripped the antique sconce right out of the wall, left a gaping hole. Hence the Pamela Anderson calendar.”
“Where’s Frank?” she said, gesturing toward his bedroom. The door was wide open and the room was empty.
“I don’t know. He must have gone out after work.”
Kate poked her head into the room. “Why are there two beds in here?” She looked back at me, her head tilted. “Does he share a room with someone?”
Blood rushed to my stomach. “Oh, uh, no, he just likes to have two beds. Sometimes he sleeps on one side; sometimes he sleeps on the other. He’s eccentric.”
Kate stared at me, her head still cocked to one side, and said nothing.
We spent the afternoon in Santa Monica, sparing no expense. I dropped thirty bucks on parking, seventy-five on lunch and drinks and another twenty on some amusement park rides. I have a catastrophic fear of heights, but Kate wanted to go on the ferris wheel, so I obliged. Once the ride started she sensed my anxiety and asked if I was okay.
“Me? I’m fine,” I said, my hands clutching the sides of the car, my neck rigid, my eyes plastered shut. I knew that in reality we were moving as fast as a baggage carousel, but I still couldn’t dispel the image of the wheel coming off its axis and rolling slowly into the Pacific Ocean. Every time I heard a creak I’d tense up. “Does that sound normal to you? Ahh Jesus we’re going backwards now!”
When the ride stopped and our feet hit the ground I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. I did it, I said to myself, holding my head high as we walked past the line of senior citizens and grandchildren waiting for their turn to board. A pleasant-looking white-haired woman smiled at me and I smiled back, a reassuring smile, the kind that says, “It’s okay. You have nothing to fear.”
Afterward, Kate and I sat on the edge of the pier eating ice cream cones, our feet dangling above the breakers. We talked about high school mostly, things like sports, the prom, best friends, keg parties. Kate had a high school sweetheart named Brian Lappin who still lived back in Bloomfield and worked for Ford. “He was my first love,” she said, and I could tell by the way she said it that there hadn’t been another since.
The drive back to Hollywood was quiet but nice. Kate suggested we lie down for a nap when we got home and then stay in for the rest of the night, maybe rent a movie and order Chinese food. It was as though she read my mind. I turned onto Sunset, passing the Whisky a Go-Go, Tower Records, the Chateau Marmont, the Mondrian. For the first time since I moved here I felt like a piece of the city belonged to me. Just a little piece, but still.
The next morning we got breakfast at the 101 Diner on Franklin. Kevin Spacey sat in the booth next to us. He wore sunglasses and a nametag stuck on his t-shirt that read HELLO, MY NAME IS: with “Satan” written in underneath. “Is that his son?” Kate asked, referring to the 20-year old boy in the leather jacket, sitting across from him.
The server dropped off our breakfast. “Okay pal,” Kate said. “It’s Saturday. Can you finally tell me what our big surprise plan is for tonight?”
“Vegas,” I said, grinning at her over my French toast.
“Vegas? I thought we were going to an awards show or something, that’s why you wanted me to bring the dress. But…Vegas is awesome. Vegas! VEGAS!” she shouted, adding a little “woo-hoo” at the end. Some of the nearby diners looked our way, including Spacey, who just shook his head.
We hit the road at 1:00 and arrived in Vegas just before sunset. Once we merged onto the Strip, Kate stuck her head out the passenger-side window to get a full view of the epic resort-hotels. The Mirage, the MGM Grand, the Luxor, The Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace. “Which one are we staying at?” she said.
“Just a little further up the road.”
Ten minutes later we pulled in front of the Tropicana, which, in 1999, was owned by the Holiday Inn. “This is my favorite place,” I said to Kate as the valet attendant parked the Acura. “It’s original. All the mob guys used to meet and do their business here.”
I kept talking, but Kate had stopped listening. She had wandered down the driveway and was staring at the sparkling, distant lights of the Strip.
“Frank and Sammy and Dean used to play here, every Saturday night back in the sixties,” I said as we got off the elevator on the seventh floor. “In fact, our room, 704, is where Sinatra himself used to stay.”
None of that seemed to impress her, which was unfortunate because I’d been preparing that lie for two weeks. The truth was that the Tropicana had the cheapest available rate while still being technically on the Strip—$329 for one night, more than I paid for Kate’s plane ticket.
Our room was small and musty. It reminded me of the beach house my family rented for a week every summer, specifically the guest bedroom that my sisters and I were afraid to sleep in. The bedspread was threadbare cotton, a faded turquoise color, with tears in it that looked like panty hose runs. It wasn’t the plush kind of blanket you’d curl up in naked after sex, but rather something you kept in the back of your closet to dry off wet animals.
“Let’s check out the view.” I opened the blinds, rested my hands on my hips and marveled at the flickering lights, which, it turned out, was the control panel of the hotel’s ventilation system.
Kate and I lied in bed, watched TV and fooled around a bit, then got dressed for dinner. I’d made a reservation for 8:30 at Ruth Crist’s Steakhouse. Kate looked gorgeous in makeup, a black cocktail dress and heels. I had on the dark gray Banana Republic sport jacket and slacks that my sister bought me as a graduation present, but I forgot to pack my dress shoes, so I had no choice but to wear flip-flops. Everything was fine down to my ankles. Luckily my feet were so pasty white that they could have been mistaken for saddle shoes, the kind with five gangly toes hanging off the tips.
Still, with Kate beside me, my confidence was high. “Hold up,” I said once we got to the lobby. “Lets hit a couple tables first.”
I sat at a blackjack table while Kate stood behind me, her hands on my shoulders. On my first hand I split a pair of aces. “Looks like you’ve played this before,” Kate said, leaning down by my ear. I smiled, raising only the corner of my mouth. The dealer beat me on both hands and I quickly lost the next two games. I laid down another hundred and lost that in seven minutes.
I sulked for the entire cab ride to the restaurant. After the two hundred I blew at blackjack I had one-ninety left in my bank account and about one-thirty available on my credit card.
“What’s wrong?” Kate said.
“Nothing. My feet are just cold.”
The maître d’ overlooked my flip-flops and sat us without incident. Once I got the check, however, I wished that he had refused us service. The bill was $180 with tip, and that didn’t even include bread rolls. I intercepted the server on his way to another table, handed him both my debit and credit cards and asked him to please make it work.
After dinner Kate and I walked down the Strip, arm in arm. We stopped in front of the Bellagio and kissed while the fountains sprayed up behind us. Other couples strolled around the area, holding hands and posing for pictures. I felt a kinship to them. The loneliness of L.A. seemed like a distant memory.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” Kate said, tugging on my lapels. My heart raced. A cab ride would get us there quicker, but I thought it might be more romantic—and cheaper—to walk the remaining mile and a half. It was a nice idea, but after a block my right flip-flop broke, forcing us to hail a taxi. Kate flagged it down while I hopped along behind her.
Back at the Sinatra Suite, Kate and I took our clothes off and got into bed. There was no radio, so I turned on the TV for ambience. We made out to Pat Robertson’s opening statement on The 700 Club. Things escalated quickly, but thanks to my bowel disease I had to call a time out and use the bathroom. I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen, which could have been gas or something more serious. Either way, the only solution was to open my escape hatch as soon as possible. In the likelihood that the discharge would be loud, I turned up the volume on The 700 Club. For ten minutes I sat on the toilet and strained with no relief, all while listening to stories of God performing the miraculous. By the time I returned to bed, Kate was snoring.
The next morning we packed our bags and went down to the breakfast buffet. I was starving, but the line stretched out into the lobby so we skipped it and checked out. Outside, the valet attendant pulled up with the Acura. He waited by the door as I got behind the wheel. “I tipped the guy last night,” I said, and drove away.
We stopped for gas outside the city limits. “Wait,” Kate said from the passenger seat. “Let me pay for this. You’ve paid for everything so far.” She searched her pocketbook and handed me a ten-dollar bill.
“Thanks,” I said, staring out at the endless desert highway that lay ahead.
For two hours, neither of us spoke. Kate stared out her window, her head resting on her fist. Once we got to Barstow I asked what she was thinking about.
“Us,” she said. “I had an amazing time this weekend. So what happens now? Long-distance? I can’t do that, Danny. I tried it with Brian when I left for college and it destroyed us, not just our relationship but our friendship. It turned us into monsters.” She turned to me, her eyes watery. “But I just can’t go home and pretend you and me never happened, either. It’s been almost six years since Brian and I haven’t felt this comfortable with anyone. Do I just get on a plane tomorrow and say goodbye and wait another six years for someone else to walk into my life?”
I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” I said. “And I don’t know the answer, either. But we don’t need to figure it out right now. Let’s just enjoy the ride.”
Kate wiped away her tears and nodded. “Just promise me we won’t turn into monsters.”
“I promise,” I said. Kate leaned over and kissed my cheek, then returned to her perch by the window, only now she was smiling. I knew this conversation was coming and I had already prepared the appropriate soundtrack. I took the CD out from its case, slid it into the deck, skipped to track seven and hit play. It was “Love Walks In” by Van Halen, from 5150, the band’s first album with Sammy Hagar on lead vocals.
Kate put her hand over mine. The Acura roared down interstate 15.
* * * *
For our last night together I took Kate to a Japanese restaurant in the Hollywood Hills, spending ninety of my remaining one hundred dollars. We kept it light, avoiding talk of the future, but my mind had already begun plotting an exit strategy. Two, maybe three months at most, and I was out of L.A. Before this weekend I was just another show biz bottom feeder, shuttling along the freeways, eating fast food, going to the Beverly Center once a month for a new shirt. But after three days with Kate I felt reborn. My desire to be with her was matched equally with a blistering hatred for this town. So what if I threw away a career in the movies? The real thing sat across from me, in the flesh, and to have it all I had to do was pack up the Acura and take a nice long drive home.
We went to sleep early that night. The next morning I woke up to the sound of the shower running. Kate’s suitcase was packed, standing upright in the hall. An hour later we were in the Acura, heading south on La Brea, back to LAX.
“I’ll call you when I land,” she said in the terminal. She gave me a long hug but no kiss. I wished her a safe flight. She wiped her eyes, thanked me for a wonderful time, then turned and walked to the gate, pulling her suitcase behind her.
I watched her yellow-blonde head disappear into the crowd, and I thought of something she said on our drive back from Vegas.
It turned us into monsters.
A shooting pain rose up from the pit of my abdomen, the same one I felt back in the Sinatra Suite. I turned around and walked back to the Acura.
My first apartment in Los Angeles was in one of those courtyard buildings, the kind you see in movies, with the cheap aluminum gates and the swimming pool that no one ever uses. The property had a name, The Hollywood Gardens. It sprawled across the facade in huge letters, done in a retro 1950s typeface that reminded me of bowling alleys and trashy science fiction novels. This was conflicting. While the name Hollywood Gardens evoked tranquility, the sign was tacky. It was like someone stole the hood ornament from a Ford Thunderbird and glued it to the exterior wall. Whoever designed the building could have showed some restraint and made a smaller sign, then placed it in a more tasteful location, say, on a welcome mat, or maybe a business card.
My neighbors were mysterious loners. I’d sit on my front stoop and watch them come and go, dreaming up stories for each of them. I imagined the scruffy guy in 2B was a down-on-his-luck private investigator who had just stumbled onto the case of a lifetime: a murdered starlet with ties to the mayor. There was a classy older woman in 3F who always wore chiffon blouses and safari hats, which led me to believe she was either a wildlife photographer or a spirit medium. In 2E was a single mom and her teenage son, who’d just arrived from somewhere on the east coast, possibly New Jersey. I figured the son had difficulty at his new high school and was likely bullied by a group of blonde-haired kids, until he enlisted the help of the building’s maintenance guy, a kind-hearted Asian man who not only fixed leaky faucets but also taught karate.
When I actually met the other tenants, I was saddened to learn that none of them were as interesting as I’d hoped—except for the albino in 2H, the one with the butterfly farm and all those antique mannequins. Everyone else was a show business wannabe. Actor. Writer. Singer. There were no additional details offered, no qualifiers like “studying to be” or “in training”; just a straight-faced, one-word job description that magically put them in the same category as Meryl Streep and Marlon Brando.
It was hard to ask any follow-up, like how their careers were going or if I’d seen them in anything, because the answer was evident. “Oh yeah, I’m killin’ it right now,” said Dean, the comedian from 1D. “That’s why I’m trading you my stereo speakers for a Mobil gift card”.
I often wondered what my neighbors thought about me, a clean-cut college grad who left for work at 8:00 every morning, wearing a dress shirt and chinos. This alone was cause for suspicion. As I passed the other units I’d see the occasional pair of eyes, peering out at me through a window. “There goes Mr. Salary,” I imagined them saying. It seemed that in Los Angeles working a regular job meant you’d sold out and taken the easy road, whereas sitting on a beanbag all day in a fishing hat and flip-flops meant you were still in hot pursuit of your dreams.
“Lemme guess: either you work at a bank, or a rental car place.” This from Ronnie, the guitarist from 1F. “I mean, where else would you be going every day at the same time?”
“Good observation,” I said, wafting away his exhaled pot smoke. “But you forgot one other possibility.”
Once the other tenants found out I worked for a movie producer, I became the building’s conduit to stardom. Random encounters became impromptu auditions, where they’d showcase their talents or pitch ideas in the hopes that I’d get them a meeting on the Sony lot. They were sly about it, like Bill the screenwriter, who somehow injected phrases like “strong female lead” or “second act turning point” into every conversation, or Meredith the singer, who broke into Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” whenever I saw her in the laundry room. “Oh my, was I singing aloud just then?” she’d say, her hand pressed against her chest.
I downplayed the glamour of my job while at the same time exploiting it. “It’s just like anything else,” I’d remind people. “Long hours, big egos, countless meetings, blah blah blah. Anyway, my car’s here. Off to another boring Director’s Guild party.” I told stories about work, placing myself at the center and then casually sprinkling famous people around the edges. They weren’t lies, per se; they were technical versions of the truth. For instance: I did eat lunch with John Cusack today, just not directly next to him. He and I were both in the commissary at the same time, but at different tables. “He’s a good guy,” I added, a judgment I made after noticing how pleasantly he chewed his salad.
On the outside I played the role of big shot producer’s assistant—movie premieres, Banana Republic wardrobe, CD player in my car—but behind the scenes lay a different story, more of a sitcom premise, actually: I lived with four other people in a two-bedroom apartment. This may be acceptable for a fledgling rock band, or a group of refugees, but it’s a bit too collegial for a young professional, especially one who buys skin cream exclusively at Fred Segal. As soon as my neighbors discovered the unzipped sleeping bags on the floor and the 40-year old man living in my closet, my status as an industry insider was revoked.
“This is…nice,” Dean said, standing in my living room, surveying the apartment. “To be honest, I was expecting, like, gold records on the wall or pictures of you and Tom Cruise in Aspen, but this…” he said, nodding toward the nest of pillows on the floor, “…this also works.”
“Believe me, it’s only temporary,” I said, quietly, careful not to wake the guy sleeping on the couch. “I’m just helping out some friends until they get on their feet.” A charitable notion, but it did little to change the impression that I was a fraud. After all, how could I boast about my friendship with Kevin Bacon’s brother, or my advance VHS copy of The Blair Witch Project, when my apartment looked like a Red Cross shelter?
“Hey man, you don’t have to explain anything to me,” Dean said, tossing a Nerf basketball into the plastic hoop that was duct taped to the wall. “Believe me, I know how it goes.” And just like that, we were on the same level. He would no longer seek my opinion on his stage persona, nor would he run his material past me before open mike nights. He’d stop asking if I knew any junior talent agents at William Morris. Outside of friendly conversation or a cup of cooking oil, I was worthless to him. We were equal. The idea made my stomach sick.
I stopped him on the front steps. “Please, let me explain,” I said, desperately, as though he’d just found me in bed with his girlfriend. He sighed and checked his watch, then nodded for me to proceed. So I did…
At first there were two of us, myself and Eric. A month later we got a call from Frank, a friend of ours from Boston, who asked if he could stay with us for a few weeks until he found a job and his own place. That plan fell apart two days after he arrived, when, while hiking through Beachwood Canyon, he slipped and tumbled down the side of a cliff, breaking his knee. Since he’d be out of work for the foreseeable future, Eric and I loaned him money for a twin-sized bed and let him stay with us indefinitely. Eric said the bed could go in his room, so long as I accepted the role of Frank’s full-time caretaker. “No problem,” I said, thinking the extent of my duties would be fetching sodas from the fridge. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized Frank needed help getting in and out of the shower, as well as support while he wiped himself after bowel movements.
Next to arrive was Graham, a former roommate from film school. Though we shared a bedroom, I hardly knew anything about him, except that he wore matching pajamas and was prone to seizures. I always assumed he hated me and secretly planned to kill me, so I was surprised when he called me one day in August, from a payphone on Sunset Blvd., to ask if he could stay with me for a little while. “Just until I get a screenwriter job,” he said. At first I laughed, but then I realized he was serious and I felt bad for him. He had nowhere else to go, so I said sure, he could sleep on the living room floor.
Our fifth roommate was Howie, a massively built man in his late-thirties who looked like Mike Tyson’s brother. A friend of Frank’s from the Boston restaurant scene, Howie showed up at our door, unannounced, in late August. “Frank here?” he said, standing on the front steps in a tank top and drawstring karate pants, his only luggage a canvas laundry bag. Before I could respond he walked past me into the living room, dropped his bag on the floor, sat down on the couch, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from the coffee table and lit one. When I asked what brought him to Los Angeles, he scratched his head and asked if I had any weed.
None of us had the courage to ask Howie for rent, or how long he planed on staying, so we let him sleep on the couch—until, that is, we discovered how late he slept. Four o’clock in the afternoon, while the rest of us sat on the floor watching a football game, Howie would still be asleep on the couch, snoring, his massive feet draped over the armrest. A week later we cleared out the storage closet and told Howie he was welcome to it, free of charge. He agreed.
That was two months ago, and no one had moved out since.
“You see? This is what I’ve been dealt,” I said to Dean, gesturing through my window at Frank and Howie, who were sitting on milk crates, in front of the TV, playing Nintendo.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted for a response. Did I expect him to breathe a sigh of relief? Would he say, “Ohhhhh. Okay. So you are somebody important. I got a little nervous when I saw the air mattress in your kitchen, but it all makes perfect sense now. Great! Now that you’ve cleared that up, can I have some more career advice?”
Instead Dean just shook his head. “That’s rough,” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or patronizing. Then it occurred to me: there’s no way to justify five people living in a two-bedroom apartment, just like there’s no decent explanation for a restraining order or a cold sore. I would either have to resolve the situation myself or accept it and live with the consequences.
Dean said he had to get home, that his girlfriend was making her famous chicken cacciatore for dinner. I wanted to ask if I could join but figured that was creepy, so instead I sat on my front steps and watched them, all night, through their living room window. I pictured myself at the dinner table, raising a glass of pinot noir and toasting our futures. We’d talk about our respective trades and share cautionary tales on the pitfalls of fame. Afterward we’d retire to the couch and watch a movie on HBO, during which I’d make personalized comments about the actors, things like “He’s a real gentleman, that Keanu.”
At eleven o’clock their lights went out, but I stayed on my steps, watching. An hour later Meredith the singer entered the courtyard, passing me on her way to her apartment. She wore a strapless silver dress and heels, indicating she had either been on a date or had possibly performed somewhere. I waved and smiled at her. I expected her to start humming the chorus to “My Heart Will Go On”, but instead she waved back quickly and kept walking. It was as if she already knew I had nothing more to offer. It was as if they all knew.
* * *
In December I went home for Christmas, to see friends and family and to repair my damaged ego. I told the same movie industry tales, but now that I was three thousand miles away from the truth, I drastically inflated them. “There’s not much to do on a movie set, pop,” I said at the dinner table. “It’s a lot of standing around. Sometimes I’ll get an idea, you know, something that could make the scene work better, and I’ll pull the director aside and talk to him, but beyond that it’s just me and Clooney and our ping pong tournament.” This was a stretch, as I had only been on movie set twice: once to make a Fedex run, and once to drop off a pack of string cheese.
When friends asked for my craziest celebrity encounter, I told them that Angelina Jolie once mooned me. This did in fact happen but to someone else, a P.A. on location with Angelina in Pennsylvania, where she filmed Girl, Interrupted. Since he told me about it firsthand, I was fine borrowing it and then inserting myself as the central character. The more times I told that story, though, the more it bored me. By the end of the week it changed from me seeing Angelina Jolie’s bare ass to me knocking out Harrison Ford in the alley behind Spago.
I spent my last night in Boston visiting Maura, a friend from high school and one-time flame. She was living in a duplex in Brookline with three other women. “Very nice,” I said as she gave me a tour of the spacious first floor apartment. “And you all have your own bedrooms?”
“Yeah, Danny,” she said, laughing. “This isn’t summer camp.”
She poured us each a glass of wine and we sat in her living room, catching up. Maura was my first real relationship. I was fifteen; she was fourteen. My mother had to drive us on our first date, to the movies to see My Cousin Vinny. Now she was in graduate school, working part time at a V.A. hospital. It was nice to see her, both of us adults, talking about adult things.
“So, tell me about L.A.,” she said.
I wanted to tell her the truth. That I shared a two-bedroom apartment with four guys, one of whom lived in our storage closet. That my car had been towed twice, and both times I had to borrow money from a coworker to get it out of the lot. That I ate Jack-in-the-Box every night for dinner. That my boss called me a fucking moron at least once a day. That the freeways depressed me. That I felt like a servant, a bottom-feeder, a nobody who had nothing.
Before I could spill my guts to her, the front door opened. Keys jingled, cabinet doors opened and closed, and boot heels thudded across the floor. “That’s Kate, my roommate,” Maura said. “I guess she’s not going to the gym tonight.”
Kate entered the room. “Maura, where’s the fucking weed?” She turned to me. “Hi.” She turned back to Maura. “I told you to save some for this exact moment because all I wanted to do was get home from work, get high, and listen to Van Halen. Remember?”
While Maura redirected Kate to the kitchen cupboard, I was overcome by a strong sense of déjà vu. I knew I had heard those words before, and then I realized that they were my own words, spoken to Frank, verbatim, two weeks ago.
Kate joined us in the living room. “So, Danny,” she said, drawing in a mammoth hit from a glass bowl. She held it until her head started to sway, and then let it out with an elaborate groan. “Maura says you work in L.A., in the movies. That’s pretty cool.” She passed me the pipe.
“Well…” I said, taking a hit. “It’s hard work and long hours, and sometimes it’s bullshit, but I love it. I do. I really, really love it.”
“Do you see a lot of famous people?” she said.
I shrugged. “Matt Damon was in my office last week.” This wasn’t entirely true. Matt Damon poked his head in for five seconds to ask if I knew where the men’s room was. Also it wasn’t Matt Damon. It was Henry Winkler.
“Oh my God I love Matt Damon,” Kate said. She was about to continue and then stopped herself. “Wait…wait.” She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “Shhhh. Just shut up and listen.”
Filling the silence was the opening guitar riff of “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”. The three of us sat there for the rest of the night, talking, passing the pipe and listening to Van Halen I. Moments like that can’t be written; they’re too perfect for movies.
I didn’t want to leave but eventually I did, and by ten the next morning I was boarding a plane back to Los Angeles. Since I couldn’t afford the luxury of a direct flight, I had to switch planes in Cleveland and then again in Phoenix. Twelve hours of travel and all I thought about was Kate: her Midwestern accent, her yellow-blonde hair, her rosy cheeks. Even though she was from Michigan, she reminded me of home. I pictured her in high school, cruising around her Detroit suburb with a group of friends, drinking in the woods or in some convenient store parking lot, singing along to the choruses of hair metal anthems. It stung, indulging in this fantasy that would never materialize, but I took the pain and kept dreaming anyway.
Eric picked me up from LAX. We took La Brea back to our apartment, passing strip malls and billboards and fast food joints. When we got home, Frank and Howie were on the couch playing a video game. The place reeked of bong water and farts. I walked directly into my bedroom and shut the door.
My first day back at work was uneventful, except for when my boss called me a ‘fucking completely retarded idiot’, an insult I had stopped using myself in the fourth grade. She called me that because I had missed a phone call, her hairstylist, Jean Pierre, who was confirming an appointment. I suppose it was my fault; after all, I did use the rest room when I could have just as easily taken a shit in the trashcan under my desk. When she got tired of reaming me out she went back into her office, and I laid my head down on my desk and fought back tears.
That night at home I got stoned and ate my Jack-in-the-Box. Our cable had been shut off, so all five us sat in the living room watching Cocktail on VHS. Halfway through the movie the phone rang, a pleasant surprise since I was sure that had been disconnected as well. It was Maura. She just wanted to tell me how great it was to see me, and how glad she was that I was doing so well out in L.A. Then she told me that someone wanted to talk to me. Goosebumps broke out over my body.
A moment later, Kate was on the line. “Danny?” she said. “Is this Danny Pellegrini, from California?” She sounded drunk, which was fine by me. I heard roommates giggling in the background. "So, Danny Pellegrini from California…here's the deal. I want to see you again." She burped. "What are we going to do about that?"
...STAY TUNED FOR PART 2, "BAREFOOT IN VEGAS", COMING SOON!
I had just stepped out of a Sunday night meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous when my text alert chimed. Are you still on Newbury? I know it’s last minute, but I’m in the area.
Normally when I’m invited to do something last minute, I say, “Love to, but I’m heading into a movie”. Either that or I wait three hours and then respond with this universal line of bullshit: Just woke up from a nap and saw your text. This particular instance was unique, though. I had just left an AA meeting, the theme of which was honesty. “You never have to lie again,” said the speaker, a grateful, recovering alcoholic named Al. I thought about this as I stared down at my phone, looking at a text from Heidi, a woman I met on Tinder five days before.
How truthful do I have to be? I wondered. The plain truth was that I wasn’t that excited about meeting her, but obviously I couldn’t write that. I considered replying with Not feeling too well or Ugh, I’m exhausted, but those were only half-truths, conditional upon adding at the prospect of meeting you onto the back end. Finally I decided that the kindest and most genuine response was: I’m not really up for it right now, but I would like to meet you sometime soon. This, by all accounts, was true, so uncommonly true that it could be perceived as a brushoff. It could make me seem unwilling and inflexible. After deliberating this for a few more minutes I decided it would be easier just to meet her.
I texted her back: Yeah, I’m by the park. Where are you?
Her: Looking for a parking spot. Do you want to meet at the Wired Puppy?
Sounds good, I replied, and then I got anxious. This was supposed to be easy and casual. Parking involves commitment, especially Back Bay parking during the peak of the holiday shopping season. I pictured her holding up traffic as she tried repeatedly to back her Camry into a spot the size of a Radio Flyer. Drivers would honk at her, causing her stress. “This better be worth it,” she’d say, finally squeezing into her spot. Then she’d open her car door and step into a slush puddle. She’d arrive late at the coffee shop, and we’d talk for twenty minutes, long enough for her feet to thaw. She’d say it was nice to meet me but she had to be up early, and then she’d go back to her car, where a forty-dollar ticket would be waiting on her windshield. “Thanks a lot, asshole,” she’d say, meaning me, of course, not the parking enforcement.
I had little to lose, though. Our Tinder match was the result of one of my “like sprees”, where I indiscriminately swipe right on an entire batch of profiles, just flick my thumb across the screen of my iPhone, as though I’m dealing a deck of cards. This saves time and guarantees me at least a few matches by the end of the night. It’s like casting a wide net and then dragging it along the ocean floor; usually I pull up hypodermic needles and contaminated shellfish, but I hold onto the hope that somewhere mixed in with the refuse is a sunken gem.
The risk with this strategy is inadvertently matching with someone I know in the real world. After a “like spree” a few months back I found a message in my inbox from “Barry”, a 58-year old meth addict whom I knew from AA. I’m not sure how he made it past my filter (women, ages 30-40), but I immediately wrote him back and told him it was a mistake. Rather than accept this graciously, Barry’s response was: Maybe you could just come over and cuddle for a while? He went on to list step-by-step directions to his apartment, a “basement studio past the last Dumpster in the alley”. As appealing as this sounded, I said no.
For the next month, whenever I saw Barry at a meeting, he’d stare at me with his mouth hung open, as though I was a laundry bag filled with cocaine, sitting in a folding chair. Typically he kept to himself in meetings, but one day after our accidental match he raised his hand and told the group that he’d “just met someone special who made him want to be sober”. When he finished, he looked at me and smiled. I promptly got up from my chair and left the meeting. After that, he stopped coming around. I presumed he got the message and changed his meeting schedule, but come to find out he had actually relapsed. Apparently he went on a two-week meth binge, got fired from his temp job, evicted from his studio apartment, and, for an encore, attempted suicide. When I heard this I shook my head. “What a shame,” I said, and then looked up at the crucifix on the church basement wall and mouthed a silent “thank you”.
On the rare occasion that a “like spree” yields a sunken gem, I assume that the two of us are destined for each other, especially if her profile contains certain keywords, like sweatpants or crossword. I’ll spend forty minutes crafting a message that I consider “attentive” but in reality sounds like a note from a serial killer, something cryptic, like I play word games, too. I send the message, and then I start mapping out our life together, mulling over details like where we will ultimately live. Should we settle down and raise kids in the Boston area? Or should we be closer to her family, in Kazakhstan? A couple days go by, I get no response, and my dream dies. Then I crawl back into my foxhole, shut the lid and wait for another dream.
That kind of manic behavior was typical before I got sober. For years drugs and alcohol simplified my perspective into two basic emotions: euphoria and withdrawal. AA has helped me level off a bit, to stay in the moment and take things as they come. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in the last two years, though, is not to trust my instincts. That might seem counterintuitive to most conventional wisdom, but let’s face it, I didn’t end up in Alcoholics Anonymous because I was kicking ass in the life department.
“Heidi?” I said. I didn’t have to ask. She was the only person inside the Wired Puppy. The place was closing in twenty minutes.
We shook hands and went to the counter. “This place has great coffee,” she said. “Do you like coffee?”
“I do,” I said. I thought of adding that I also like to breathe, and eat, and sleep, but figured I’d hold onto those for when the conversation really hit the skids.
“What’s your favorite coffee place in Boston?” she said as she ordered a Free Trade Ethiopian Dark Blend.
“The Dunkins on Old Colony Ave. in Southie,” I said. “They make a great regular, plus there’s a TV on the wall that plays CNN.” Then: “I’m only kidding.” But I wasn’t kidding. Dunkin Donuts is the only coffee I ever drink, not counting the Maxwell House that I brew at my Tuesday night “Surrender to Win” meeting.
“I know that Dunkins!” she said. “I live right across the street. I go there when I’m desperate.”
“Wait…where do you live?”
She told me her address. It was two houses down from mine. So much for a wide net.
“Get out of here!” she said. “Are you in that new building on the corner?”
“No…I’m down the other direction.”
She cocked her head, searching for a mental picture of my house. “Oh, that brown one?”
“Technically it’s mustard,” I said, wondering if she’d noticed the rotted window frames, or my old toilet, which had been sitting out on my back deck since June.
She nodded. “Right…I’ve always wondered who lived in that house.” This is something people only say when referring to a castle on a hill or a shithole that looks like it might be haunted.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said. Then, as if this would help: “I own it.”
The great thing about a first date is that a person can crawl out from under any rock, throw on a decent coat and be whoever they want to be. But my charade had just ended. I was no longer the guy from South Boston who may or may not live in one of those new luxury high-rises, who may or may not park his Mercedes SUV in a designated underground spot, who may or may not pay $800 in monthly condo fees. I had just been officially outed as the guy who lives in the oldest, most pitiful house on the street, the guy with a broken screen door leaning against his neighbor’s fence, the guy who shovels out his car in the winter and then claims his spot with a Finding Nemo beach chair.
The Wired Puppy closed for the night, so we strolled around Newbury and Boylston Street. One thing I noticed about Heidi was that she looked excessively French, almost comically so, as though she were auditioning for the role of “Girl Walking Along Seine.” This occurred to me as soon we left the coffee shop, when she put on her Beret. Along with her short, messy hair, her pointed chin, her crooked front tooth, her long wool coat, her impeccably tied scarf and her leather boots, she looked more like an illustration than an actual live person. Was this intentional? When she got dressed, did she say to herself, “If my name’s going to be Heidi, I damn well better look like a Heidi.” As I spun this narrative in my head I felt myself grow distant and bitter.
I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I’m a sick asshole, and lo and behold, I was back in the present moment, just in time to catch the last part of a question.
“…do you ever rock climb?” she said.
I’m not sure how we got there, but I rolled with it. “The last time I climbed a rock I got stuck in the Hollywood Hills and had to be rescued by the L.A. County Fire Department. Back then we didn’t call it rock climbing, though. We called it ‘getting stoned and doing something’”.
She laughed. It was a good note to end on. We arrived at the corner of Commonwealth and Arlington and stood awkwardly for a moment. I told her I should probably head home. She offered me a ride and I politely refused.
“Are you sure?” she said. “We’re literally going to the same place.”
“Nah, it’s nice out,” I said. “And I like to walk.”
That was the plain truth. I didn’t have to dress it up one bit.
I was still on the fence about Heidi, so I was leery about spending too much money on a second date. I like to pick up the tab when I’m out with a woman, not because I’m old fashioned or chivalrous or anything like that, but because asking a date to split the check is awkward and uncool. My problem is that, when it comes to date ideas, I’m not creative. I always suggest a bar or restaurant, we always order food (and alcohol for her), and I always spend somewhere between fifty to a hundred bucks. Three or four times a month, this adds up to a car payment.
I have a friend in Los Angeles who meets a lot of women on dating websites. Rather than going to trendy bistros or cultural events, where he could easily drop fifty bucks a pop, he takes them to the Griffith Park Observatory. There he’ll spend at most seven dollars each, and that’s if they watch a film in the planetarium, which he’ll only propose if the date has potential. Every week he shows up at the observatory with a different woman, saying hello to the same ticket-takers, all of whom he knows on a first name basis. At this rate, you’d think he’d have a constellation named after him, or at least a telescope. And while none of his dates have ever materialized into anything serious, he has gained an impressive knowledge of the solar system, and of the observatory itself. Ask him anything about it and he’ll answer you like a tour guide, reciting the hours of operation, the class schedule, and which areas are available for private functions.
In the spirit of creativity I suggested to Heidi that we go to “The Art of Brick”, an installation of Lego art on display in Faneuil Hall. My friend Dave had mentioned it a few weeks back. Took the family to see this today. Amazing. And free! he texted me. Heidi thought it was a great idea, so we set it up for Sunday night.
I ordered an Uber to take us to Faneuil Hall. The car will arrive in four minutes, I texted her. Meet me out on the street. I didn’t intend for this to be clandestine, but once I got outside I felt like I was meeting an informant in a spy movie. At first we passed each other, exchanging furtive glances, not saying anything. Then the Uber arrived and we both moved toward it. “Heidi?” I said. “I wasn’t sure if that was you.” Just in case another next-door neighbor was waiting for someone at the exact same time.
Dave must have seen “The Art of Brick” during a special matinee promotion, because I paid fifty-six bucks for two adults. That’s more expensive than admission to the Museum of Fine Arts—an actual museum with high ceilings, marble floors, velvet ropes and priceless Renaissance-era paintings. “The Art of Brick”, on the other hand, was staged in the attic of Quincy Market, a jury-rigged maze of blacklit poster board that felt more like the entrance to a nightclub than an art gallery.
The first section was all classical works of art, re-created with Legos. Heidi took the lead and proceeded to not only identify each piece, but also to enlighten me with a five-minute critique of its composition, along with a brief history of the original artist and the religious or political context in which it was created. She began each analysis with a gasp. “Ah…Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Baroque era. Look at how he stays true to the simplicity of Vermeer’s original. The negative space, all black. No context. Like true love itself…transcendent.”
“Yep,” I said, moving on.
Next was Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, its swirling brush strokes astoundingly redone with light and dark blue Lego blocks. “Jesus Christ, that’s incredible,” I said.
“Mmm,” Heidi said, tilting her head. “And notice the use of light…even in the deepest of night the sky is illuminated, guiding us toward peace. So hopeful, yet so melancholy,” she said, pressing her body against my arm.
I stepped away. “Exactly,” I said. “And look, even the frame’s made out of Legos.”
We continued through the exhibit. “I know that one!” I shouted, pointing at the Mona Lisa. “And that one over there is what’s-it-called, Farmer With Pitchfork.”
The rest of the show was original work, like the yellow torso, its hands pulling apart its sternum. A stream of yellow Legos spilled from its chest cavity. “I call this Too Many Chili Dogs,” I said. Nothing from Heidi, who stood before a sculpture of a man and a woman holding hands, their bodies a deep shade of red. The man had a protruding midsection, and the woman’s breasts appeared droopy. “They must be retired,” I said, thoughtfully.
“I see commitment,” Heidi said, wiping away a tear. “A passion that never fades. That explains the boldness of the red.”
“Right,” I said. For the remainder of the exhibit I pointed at each piece and asked Heidi what it meant. Her answers got progressively more ludicrous. A blue figure that looked like it was swimming through the floor represented “the plight of the middle class”, while a torso with its arms folded and a box for a head personified “the hubris of standardized testing”.
I checked my watch as we neared the end of the exhibit. Even though it felt like hours, we had only been there for twenty-five minutes. This was unfortunate, as I had hoped the Lego thing would be the entire date, and then we’d go home. Instead, Heidi asked if I wanted to grab a bite. “Just a snack,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, confident that we’d end up at a bar somewhere, where she’d order a beer and we’d split some nachos. Twenty-five bucks, tops. This would also give me some extra time to decide whether or not I liked her. At that point, I was leaning heavily toward not.
“The Union Oyster House is right around the corner,” she said once we got outside. She shivered from the cold, then reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Mind if I smoke? They’re American Spirits.”
“Not at all,” I said, thinking how amusing it is when people qualify their vices. It’s like telling someone you shoot gluten-free heroin.
We split a dozen oysters and Heidi ordered two Sam Adams. The bill was sixty bucks, including tip. “Let me pay for this,” Heidi said once the bartender returned with my change. I shook my head and checked my watch. My eyes watered from boredom and spite. I wanted to go home.
“Should we get a car?” she said. I felt her knee pressed against my leg.
“Good idea,” I said, rubbing my temples.
While we waited for our Uber, Heidi smoked a couple more cigarettes and talked about her job, casually mentioning that next Monday was her last day. “After that, I might move to Budapest. Then again, I might not. Maybe I’ll have a reason to stick around,” she said coyly, exhaling a stream of smoke and pressing up against me.
“Sounds like a solid plan,” I said, twisting away from her. An MBTA bus roared down Atlantic Ave. I briefly considered stepping in front of it.
The Uber arrived and drove us back to our street. “You have to come up and see my place,” Heidi said, tugging on my arm. I forced out a yawn and reminded her it was getting late, hoping she would take the hint. She didn’t. “Just five minutes. Come on.”
“Okay,” I sighed.
Her apartment was a four-bedroom that she shared with two other women and one dude. It was nearly triple the size of my place, but at least I didn’t have to sign up to use the living room or label my food in the fridge. She gave me a tour of the place, basically pointing at ordinary housewares and stating their owners. “That’s Michelle’s bookcase…that’s Greg’s coffee table…that Chinese lantern over there is mine.” I followed behind, nodding along, yawning into my fist.
“Wait ‘til you see this,” she said, taking my limp hand into hers and leading me into her bedroom.
We walked through a bedroom that looked similar to mine—at age twenty-two. A mattress, a chest of drawers, a couple stacks of books and a hardwood floor. “This is nice,” I said. Then we came to a sliding glass door. She opened it and we stepped out onto a deck.
“This is what I wake up to every morning,” she said, gesturing out at the Boston skyline. The view was unobstructed. Skyscrapers and twinkling lights, so clear it was surreal, like the backdrop of a movie set.
I felt her standing close to me, angling for a kiss. Her hand brushed against my hand. I pulled it away and buried it in my coat pocket. “You motherfucker,” I said.
“This was my view,” I said, still staring out at the skyline. “I had this view from my back deck. Then, a couple years ago, some asshole tore down the little house that used to be here and built a taller one. Three floors weren’t enough, so he pulled some strings, got a zoning variance, and added a fourth, blocking my entire view. So now when I wake up in the morning, I don’t see the skyline. I see you.”
“And this is my fault?”
“It’s nobody’s fault. But I’m still resentful about it. It’s an open wound, and coming up here with you just poured salt in it.”
“Maybe I can make it better,” she said, moving toward me.
I backed up. “You definitely can’t, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try.” I took a deep breath. “I’m leaving now. Good night. And best of luck in Budapest.”
I opened the sliding door and walked back through her bedroom. “Are you serious?” she said. I continued toward the front door, quickly, so she couldn’t catch up. She called my name a few times, the last one echoing throughout the stairwell.
Once I got outside my text alert chimed three times.
Ur a sick fucking weirdo.
Stay away from me.
How’s this for a view: FUCK YOU
Alcoholics Anonymous is filled with clever proverbs, a few of which passed through my mind as I read those texts. One of them was Keep your side of the street clean. I thought that was funny, considering its literal relevance. But the saying that stood apart from the rest was one I hadn’t heard in a while. I knew it from AA, but it could very well date back to some Buddhist monk, a thousand years ago.
Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.
Sometimes we're the storm. Sometimes the storm is circumstantial, like a bad date or a nasty text. Sometimes truth is the storm. The plain truth. If so, we have a simple choice: either dress it up, or make peace with it.
When I got home I noticed my front steps: the paint stripped away, the wood rotted and splintered. This would need to be addressed at some point, added to the list of things to fix. The list is long, but it will get done. Before I walked up them I took one last look at the skyline. I could still see the tops of the buildings and the twinkling lights, even from way down there.
A few weeks ago I spilled a can of Coke on my editing suite, most of it seeping into my desktop keyboard. Frantic, I hurried into the office kitchen, grabbed the Windex and some paper towels and tried to resuscitate, but I knew it was too late. I’ve seen the effect of Coca-Cola on my tooth enamel, not to mention my stomach lining, so I could only imagine the kind of instantaneous destruction it did to the circuit board. I reattached the keyboard and typed a trial sentence, and what I saw on my monitor was about 70% accurate; every third or fourth letter was replaced by a numeric digit or an exclamation point. It looked more like a wifi password than actual English syntax.
I treat computer keyboards like they’re wooden baseball bats, burning through a new one every twelve weeks or so. At the slightest sign of irregularity, I’ll unplug it and bring it to the I.T. office. “There’s something up with the space bar on this,” I tell the I.T. guy, who then tests it on his system.
“Works fine for me,” he says with a shrug. “What was wrong with it?”
“Look, you’re the scientist. All I know is it doesn’t feel right. End of discussion.”
I have assumed the role of “Test Pilot”, while the I.T. guy has been unwillingly assigned to play “The Engineer”. In this situation, he’s supposed to say: “You’re in luck, Danny. I’ve been working on something special, just for you. It hasn’t been tested yet, but…” Instead he stares at me, shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and hands me another forty-dollar keyboard from the stack on the shelf behind him.
This behavior is an attempt at elevating my ordinary office job to something sexier and more dangerous. Only eccentric geniuses are this particular about their instruments, so if I act the part, then perhaps one day I’ll be mistaken for one.
On a typical day, my coworkers sit at their desks, upright in their chairs, typing delicately into their laptops. Walk through my office and you’ll hear a soothing chorus of finger taps, the workplace equivalent of crickets. Once you arrive at my desk that steady patter is replaced by a disruptive staccato hammering, somewhere between Morse code and the sound a toy xylophone makes when attacked by an aggressive toddler. And there you’ll find me, agonizing over my keyboard like the Phantom of the Opera, groaning and cursing at the monitor, pulling my hair, my body twisted into some inhuman position, one leg folded under my ass while the other is draped over the chair’s armrest.
“Argh!” I yank the keyboard out of its USB port and carry it down the hall to the I.T. office. As soon as the I.T. guy sees me in his doorway, he extends his hand out to receive the damaged property.
“The control key…I don’t know what happened.” My voice is quiet and severe, like a detective who recounts to the police captain an ill-fated raid, one in which his partner was killed.
“Yup,” the I.T. guy says, scratching the back of his head. He hands me a replacement keyboard. As I carry it back to my desk I notice a tiny grease smudge on the R key, and I remember a similar smudge—nearly identical, in fact—on a keyboard I had a while back, a keyboard I couldn’t work with because I found it “strangely aloof”.
The Coca-Cola mishap was undeniable, though. “This is toast,” the I.T. guy told me after testing it on his system. He reached behind him, pulled a new one off the shelf and handed it to me. “Here you go,” he said. “Still in the package and everything.”
The box was sleeker than usual, even for an Apple product. “What is this?” I said, “a three-pack of panty hose?” I opened the box and removed the keyboard. It was approximately one foot in length, less than a millimeter thick and weighed no more than a geisha fan. The keys barely even protruded from the board’s surface, reminding me of the Speak & Spell I had as a child.
I cleared my throat and tucked the keyboard back into its box. “Um, thanks, but I’ll just take one of the older ones. It’s okay if it’s used.”
“Sorry, man. You went through them all. These are the new Apple keyboards.” I brought it up to my face and studied it, imagining how this waifish thing could sustain my blunt force trauma.
“Just try it out and see how it feels,” the I.T. guy continued. This is his response to everything. Once when I complained about a mysterious sunspot that appeared in the corner of my monitor his advice was “Just don’t look at it.” I tried that, but every fifteen minutes my eyes would wander over to it and I’d become entranced. I’d lean my face up close to the screen, hearing a faint dissonance, which could have either been electrical currents or a choir of supernatural whispers, beckoning me to join them on the other side.
“Please help me.” I stood in the I.T. guy’s doorway, my arms slack, my face pale. “I can’t not look at it…I won’t not look at it…” I folded my arms across my chest and slid down the doorjamb until my ass hit the floor.
The I.T. guy looked away, rubbed his chin, and nodded. It was as if he too had heard the voices from the computer screen, and knew exactly what I was talking about.
From a safe distance, I watched as he swapped my monitor with an older model he dug out of the storage closet. “Just destroy that one,” I said, pointing unsteadily at the damaged monitor. “Walk it down the block and throw it in a Dumpster. Better yet, throw it in the church Dumpster on Washington Street. We’ll see how talkative it is in the presence of God.”
The replacement monitor was a different brand and size, and didn’t line up uniformly with the other two monitors on my editing suite. It reminded me of a discolored tooth, or those cars that come out of the body shop with front panels or passenger-side doors that are a darker shade than the rest of the paint scheme. Inconsistencies like this annoy me to no end, but I made my peace with it, reminding myself that it was only temporary.
“We’re gonna order a new one, right? One that matches the other two?”
“Let’s just take care of one thing at a time,” he said as he plugged in the replacement monitor under my desk.
I remembered this as I plugged my sleek new Apple keyboard into its USB port. I typed a few successful emails, but the passion was gone. Instead of hammering away at the keys like a hard-boiled crime novelist, I gently prodded them, my lower palms flat on my desk while my fingertips did all the work. I recognized this hand motion as that of the wealthy widow who lived up the street from my parents. Whenever she waved to passersby or beckoned one of her servants she did so with the least amount of effort possible, keeping her hand and wrist still and moving only her fingers, as though common folk didn’t require the effort of a full hand wave. That’s how this keyboard made me feel: haughty and superior. That would be fine if I was writing a teleplay for a BBC drama, sitting in my sunroom next to a steaming cup of Earl Gray, but since most of my time is spent crafting angry emails it’s important that I’m in attack mode when sitting at my computer.
After a couple days of this I began to lose sensation in my hands. “My fingers are cramped,” I said, standing in the I.T. guy’s doorway, the keyboard wedged under my arm, my cupped hands held in the air as proof.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know what to tell you. Everybody else uses those keyboards.”
“Well, everyone else is an asshole. I need something more substantial than this. It’s like typing into a dried flower.”
“You know what?” He stood up and pulled a keyboard down from his shelf. “Take this one.” He set it on his desk and blasted it with an air gun. “I’ll even clean it up nice for you. I’ll spit shine each fucking key, okay? How’s this?” He handed me the keyboard. It was thick and rounded and ergonomic. The keypad had a wave-like shape, which is somehow more conducive to human hands. It looked like it had melted and begun to slide off one side. There was a hinge in the center, enabling it to fold into a steeple, and built-in cushions where the user could rest their palms. It may have been ergonomically advanced, but it looked about as modern as my first computer, a Commodore 64.
Though it had the heft I needed, this keyboard was made for a PC, so the layout of the keys was different. Plus there were several keys I had never heard of, like Numbers Lock, located conveniently in the same place as a Mac’s Shift key. Thus, most of my sentences began with letters but ended with numbers. And there was a new arsenal of shortcuts, none of which made any sense to me. While I quickly discovered four different ways to restart the entire system, it took me fifteen minutes to find the equivalent of the Eject button (CTRL + SHIFT + F12).
My plea to the I.T. guy was short and sweet: “Twenty-five years of typing experience for nothing.”
He nodded, sensing my desperation. “Okay. I have a few of those old Mac keyboards in offsite storage. The ones you like. We’ll take a ride there this week. You can have all of them.”
“You mean that?”
“Yes. I’ll bring my car in on Friday.”
“What if I bring my car tomorrow? Can we go then?”
“I’m out tomorrow. And Thursday.”
That was that. I’d be typing with my index fingers for another two days.
“When do you want to leave?” I said, leaning into the I.T. office. It was eleven o’clock Friday morning, and I had a project due by the end of the day.
“Twenty minutes. I just need to finish something,” he said, staring at the fantasy football roster on his screen.
An hour later the I.T. guy walked into my office twirling his car keys on his finger. He wore a matching Adidas tracksuit and wraparound sunglasses. “You ready?”
His Toyota Camry was filled with youth sporting equipment: football pads, soccer balls, muddy cleats, athletic socks. He tossed a pile of blue and red basketball shorts from the front seat to the back, just so I could get in. As soon as he started the car he rolled all four windows down. “Sorry about the smell in here,” he said. “I coach two of my sons’ teams.”
Before exiting the lot we stopped next to the parking attendant, Billy, and talked to him for five minutes about the upcoming Patriots game. Two blocks later the I.T. guy pulled over, leaned over and shouted through my window “Get to work, fuckstick!” It was a former colleague, walking to lunch. They talked to each other through the passenger-side window for a few minutes while I sat there, staring straight ahead. I thought the conversation was wrapping up until the former colleague announced that a mutual acquaintance of theirs had just died. “Holy fucking shit,” the I.T. guy said, shutting off the engine. We sat there for another fifteen minutes and got the full story.
A block later we stopped at CVS, where the I.T. guy bought a tube of Neosporin and a value pack of AAA batteries. After that he stopped at the Comcast office to pick up a new cable box. “The line looks small,” he said. “Might as well take care of this now.” We drove for another block before taking a last-minute swerve into a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru, and then another stop for gas after that. It had been an hour and we had driven five blocks. At the rate we were going we’d be back at the office just in time for the Nightly News.
Due to heavy traffic on 93 we took side roads into Charlestown. The I.T. guy took this opportunity to give me a tour of the area. “Best Cuban sandwiches in Boston,” he’d say, or “my buddy used to get handjobs there, every day.” When he wasn’t pointing out the local haunts he was calling someone a “fucking ass clown”, alternating between the other drivers and the deejays on his sports radio station.
We got to the storage facility at 12:30. He punched in a key code that got us through the outer door. Once we got to our storage area he unlocked a padlock and opened up a retractable metal door. I expected to find mason jars filled with human organs, and was disappointed when all I saw were stacks of banker’s boxes and wire racks lined with external drives and dusty computer parts. The I.T. guy tore open a few boxes and started handing me keyboards.
“These are the newer ones. We have these at the office. These are the ones I don’t want.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m still looking. Hold your fucking horses.”
Five minutes later the I.T. guy stopped looking and rested his hands on his hips. “I thought we had some of those older ones, but I guess not. No worries. We’ll just take a ride to Best Buy and buy a couple.”
“Are you sure they sell them? I thought they were out of date.”
“They sell them,” he said, pulling down the retractable door. “And there’s a great pho restaurant nearby. We’ll grab some lunch while we’re at it.”
I checked my watch. “Okay, but I have something due by the end of the day, so we really gotta be quick.”
“Relax. We’ll take Mass Ave, be there in ten minutes.”
Construction and lunchtime traffic had turned Mass Ave into a one-lane parking lot. We watched each traffic light switch from green to red while our car sat motionless. Every time we made it through an intersection the I.T. guy gunned the engine and then slammed the brakes as we fell in behind another line of cars. Forty-five minutes of this before we reached the light at the South Bay Shopping Plaza, home to Best Buy, Home Depot, Target, Linens n’ Things, and an Olive Garden.
“I could fucking live here,” the I.T. guy said, nodding toward the Olive Garden. “Those breadsticks?” He sighed as we pulled into the left-turn-only lane. There were a dozen cars ahead of us. It was a five-way intersection, and every time the left arrow turned green a stream of pedestrians crossed the street, allowing only one or two cars to go before the light turned red again.
It was 1:30. “Shit, I’m gonna miss my deadline,” I said, shifting around in my seat. “Should I just get out and walk from here?” The light turned green, then yellow, then red. We moved forward a car length. “Jesus Christ, what is going on here?”
“Just sit back a relax. We’re here. There’s nothing we can do. Listen to the radio.” He turned up the jabbering of Sports Talk, which, when combined with the jackhammer and ambulance sirens from outside, did little to calm my nerves.
“Spare change?” said a homeless man who appeared at the driver’s side window.
“I could give you some money,” the I.T. guy replied, “but how about a much more valuable piece of advice, instead?” I got nervous. He continued. “This is not a good place to panhandle. People are stressed out and angry, like my friend here. You want to make money, go to Copley Square. They’re all tourists. They don’t know any better.”
“God bless,” the homeless man said, walking on.
“See? People appreciate it when you treat them with dignity,” the I.T. guy said. I sensed an undertone directed at me, but dismissed it and nodded along.
Finally we arrived at Best Buy. My anxiety was temporarily relieved at the sight of the new Star Wars trailer being simultaneously played on thirty high definition screens. We walked straight to the Mac section and started to browse. It wasn’t long before we realized they didn’t have any of the older Mac keyboards. Everything was thinner, lighter, and more fragile—an apt representation of so many things these days. I started to get emotional when the I.T. guy waved me over to the PC section.
“How’s this one?” he said, holding up a black Hewlett Packard wireless keyboard. It was similar to the old Macs in size and bulk. I set the floor model on the shelf and typed a bit. The keys felt flimsier, and I’d still be dealing with a new command key, but it was acceptable.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
At the register line, the I.T. guy turned to me. “You in the mood for pho, or what?”
I shook my head and grabbed a bag of pizza-flavored Combos from a display rack.
For the most part, my new keyboard is reliable, but the rapport is not the same. True, I can now type a full sentence without inadvertently opening a Help window, and I no longer have to worry about sending half-written emails whenever I hit the Tab key, but absent are the small, reassuring details. Take the sound of the keys, for example. The older Macs made a dull and confident click when my fingers hit them. I felt like Daniel-san from The Karate Kid, practicing jabs on Mr. Myagi’s chest protector, knowing that, for every punch, I gained a small amount of his wisdom and experience in return. These new keys rattle cheaply when I type, and that comes off as hollow and insincere. Today’s keyboards, and most new products in general, lack the grit that I need. It’s as if they’re saying “Go easy, or you might break me.” And I can’t go easy. Certainly not when I’m typing, anyway.
The I.T. guy showed up at my doorway this morning, a box under his arm. “I got a present for you.” He opened the box and removed two older Mac keyboards, and proceeded to swap one of them for my wireless HP model.
“Where’d you get those?” I said.
“Amazon,” he said. “I ordered them yesterday. Enjoy 'em, ass clown.”
I thought about the last few weeks: the palsied hands, the ergonomics, the mistyped sentences, the accidental restarts, the storage facility, the Mass Ave traffic, the near-blown deadline.
Then I smiled, placed my hands on the keyboard, and hammered away.
Every October I declare my love for Halloween, making some thin argument that it’s the only “true” holiday because it inspires creativity rather than frenzied shopping malls or competitive dinner reservations. I’ll get on my soapbox and sermonize about the changing leaves, wax poetic about the smell of fireplaces, and encourage people to embrace the spirit of the macabre. But come October 31st I’m on my couch, picking candy corn from my teeth, flipping between the World Series and the Travel Channel's Haunted Destinations. I am the ultimate Halloween poser, which is ironic given that posing is such an integral part of the festivities.
My tapering enthusiasm follows the same basic pattern: it begins with a tinge of excitement, usually from seeing the vacated Back to School aisle in CVS now teeming with plastic vampire fangs and miniature Butterfingers. “Wow,” I say, realizing it’s not even Labor Day. “Plenty of time to come up with a great costume. I’ll show ‘em how creative I am!”
For the next ten minutes, while browsing through hair products, I sketch out some initial costume ideas. Historically I’ve always leaned toward actual human characters, like Han Solo or Axl Rose. These are people I want to dress up like anyway, and they don’t encumber me with sweaty latex masks or burdensome props, the kind without which my costume would be unrecognizable. At one Halloween party there was a Jesus with a six-foot cardboard cross jerry-rigged to his back. After an hour he discarded the cross and his costume went from Jesus to hacky sack player.
Usually by late September I begin toying with the idea of a seasonal activity, like a haunted hayride or a graveyard tour. I sense that the market for these things is dwindling, considering the number of Spookyworld coupons I’ve gotten lately from Dunkin Donuts. After a couple days I dismiss these activities as hokey and set my sights on something unregulated, like spending the night at Lizzie Borden’s Inn, or perhaps hosting a séance. At first these ideas are genius, but a week later they are completely forgotten, until I pass a Milton Bradley Ouija Board while shopping at Target. “Ah, right,” I say, raising my eyebrows and continuing on to the shower curtain aisle.
Sometime in early October my zeal fades and I start freeloading. It becomes less about what I can do for Halloween, and more about what Halloween can do for me, like that kid who shows up at your doorstep with an open bag and no costume. I might extend myself as far as a midnight showing of American Werewolf in London at some art house theater, but as soon as someone asks me to carve a pumpkin, I can’t be bothered. I get grumpy, acting as if it’s the mayor’s responsibility to get me in the mood by decorating the streets with hooded skeletons. “That’s the best they can do?” I’ll say, nodding through a subway window at a billboard for Hansel and Gretel On Ice. “My how times have changed.”
By mid-October my most festive gesture is grabbing a box of Count Chocula from the cereal aisle at Stop n’ Shop. “It’s limited edition,” I tell Amanda, who then tosses a box of Kashi over it so it isn’t visible to the other adult shoppers.
If I get invited to a Halloween party—which is rare considering I hardly know anyone—I’ll buy my costume on the way there. This often means wandering the aisles of iParty at 7:00 PM on the Saturday closest to Halloween. At that point the store looks like one of the houses in Whoville after the Grinch just stripped it clean. Walls of empty pegboard, polyester cloaks strewn across the floor, a lonely beer maid bustier dangling in the corner, staring back at me like the runt of the litter. “Come on, Danny. Get creative,” I say, scouring the store’s crevices, trying to harness those five minutes of eureka I experienced that day in CVS, two months before. But there’s not much to work with, and as a result I’ve shown up to parties in such gems as “New Year’s Eve Leprechaun” and “Priest with AK-47”.
I give a bad name to Halloween’s true foot soldiers: the people who decorate their yards with hanging corpses and Styrofoam gravestones, who buy wireless fog machines from Amazon and re-wire their doorbells to play the opening notes of “Thriller” upon each ring. The mothers that dress like witches and paint their faces green, cackling tirelessly with each roll of Sweet Tarts they hand out. The fathers that answer the door wearing kid-sized hockey masks, one hand massaging their lower back while the other wields a Fisher Price chainsaw. These people are the farmers, tilling the soil of tradition, while I pass through like the tourist I am, so quickly unimpressed by the view.
“Let’s go to Salem this Halloween,” suggested my then-girlfriend, Susannah. This was the fall of 1997. I was a senior at Emerson College, commuting from my parents’ house in Newton, working part-time at a restaurant and saving my money. I’d been hospitalized earlier that summer for an acute Crohn’s flare-up, and, as is so often the case with the recently convalescent, I was in the mood for a little joie de vivre. That Halloween, I was going all out.
I spent eighty bucks and rented a Batman costume. Not the tights that Adam West wore in the 60s TV show; that outfit makes even a small boy look like a middle-aged man, the kind of middle-aged man who is still spoon-fed cold medicine and who truly believes he is Batman.
This suit was the real deal, the rubber body armor that Michael Keaton made famous in 1989. (Actually, the Keaton edition had been rented, so I settled for the George Clooney version; they looked similar enough.) It took twenty minutes just to try it on. A sales associate had to assist me in the dressing room, handing me one piece at a time: the right glove, the cowl, the belt, the codpiece. “I think these Velcro straps go like this,” he said, securing the chest plate. He was a lanky high school kid with wire-rimmed glasses and a goofy pompadour; I thought he would make a fine Alfred and imagined him carrying a tray with soup up a staircase, or handing me the latest police files on the Joker while I sat in my study, staring at the fireplace.
I picked up the suit the day before Halloween. As soon as I got home I tried it on again, this time in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom, in front of my mother’s full-length mirror, where the light fell evenly, unlike the fluorescents of the costume shop. Overall it was impressive, but there were some evident flaws. First of all, I was too skinny to fill out the suit. I hadn’t yet regained all the weight I lost from my recent Crohn’s relapse. My chest and shoulders slid around under the armor, and my jaw appeared too narrow and delicate inside the mask. Had I been going for an intellectual or a sensitive Batman, or Batman the Mandolin Player, I would have nailed it. But as a menacing figure of justice, I fell short.
Even more frustrating was the cowl’s right ear. There was a stitch in the foam latex, indicating repairs had been done to it. As a result, the right ear bent inward while the left ear stood up straight and firm. This drove me crazy. It looked as if one ear was begging for the other’s forgiveness. I tried pressing it with an iron to straighten it out, but as soon as I pulled the cowl back over my head the right ear slowly sagged back down to a forty-five degree angle. The heat only seemed to make it worse, softening the material so that the ear hung limp at the seam. This was not a formidable look. This was a shameful look, as though Batman had just been yelled at for peeing on the floor and was sent whimpering back to his crate.
I reminded myself that Batman is not just a costume. It’s an attitude. A persona. Minor costume flaws are insignificant. To become the Dark Knight I must adopt his agility and impenetrable focus, his ability to be unseen, to blend in, to strike fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere.
“I’m Batman,” I whispered, staring into the mirror. I raised my arms wide, spreading the cape out behind me. At first it felt awesome, but the longer I held the pose, the more I felt like Liberace, about to take a bow.
I decided to wear the suit as much as possible for the next twenty-four hours. This was an attempt to not only get comfortable in it, but also to become it. I wore the gloves and mask at the dinner table, practicing my scowl as I forked mashed potatoes and green peas into my mouth. “Look at this,” my father said, shaking his head. “Twenty-five grand a year for film school, and this is what happens.”
My mother found it amusing. She said it reminded her of when I was very young, how I’d dress in my Batman Underoos, hide in the bushes and scare the neighbors that walked past the house.
“I was just a kid back then,” I said. “This suit is much different, mom. It’s for men.” I got up from the table and carried my empty plate to the sink.
That night Susannah, myself and another couple took a drive around Newton and smoked a joint. We stopped at a 7-11 for snacks, where I forgot I was dressed like Batman and assumed my customary stoned ritual of hovering in the Hostess aisle for at least ten minutes, my face slack, my eyes bloodshot, deciding between Ho-Hos or Powdered Donuts. I’d reach out and touch one of the packages and hold my finger there, mumbling things like “chocolate” or “soft and powdery” or “do I even want this?”
Everything was fine until I heard "Look, Dad. Batman!" A young boy and his father were at the other end of the aisle. I waved at them with a gloved hand, the hand still holding the Ho-Hos.
When the clerk rang up my junk food it occurred to me that I didn't have my wallet. The Batsuit does not come with pockets. I went to the parking lot to borrow money from Susannah when I saw the father and son again. They drove past me in a pickup truck, their headlights shining on me, just as Susannah handed me a twenty through the car window.
I imagined the boy asking his father why Batman needed money, and the father assuring him that Batman would be okay, that he's just in a bad place right now.
The thought of that made me so depressed, I didn't even want the Ho-Hos anymore.
* * * *
Salem is a quaint seaside town, home to the early settlers, and, of course, the infamous witch trials of the late seventeenth century. Every October the town celebrates its history by cordoning off streets and turning its square into a bazaar of arts and crafts, costumed characters, palm readers and traveling merchants. Families spend the day touring museums and the House of Seven Gables, while teenagers pose for photos in front of stone memorials—eerie burial grounds where those accused of witchcraft were hanged, burned, or, in some cases, pressed to death. It is wholesome, educational fun for people of all ages.
That is until Halloween night, when the true horror reveals itself: thousands of screaming Massholes descending upon the town, spilling out of truck beds, foaming at the mouth, howling at the moon, pissing in the streets. Parked cars line the highways for miles. Nomadic gangs of mutilated corpses and half-naked nurses walk along breakdown lanes. Camaros and Mustangs cruise slowly by, blaring heavy metal music and leaving trails of menthol cigarettes and marijuana smoke. Paddy wagon doors slam shut and police sirens wail. The residents of this normally quiet town go into lockdown. Even the ghosts are horrified.
There were four of us that night, a Halloween double date: me as Batman; Susannah as a vampire; Eric as Alex from A Clockwork Orange; and his girlfriend, Caitlin, a geisha. Salem is typically a forty-minute drive from Boston, but traffic slowed to a crawl once we exited off the main interstate. By the time we reached the neighboring town of Swampscott we couldn’t get above five miles per hour. Finally, after an hour and a half in the car, we parked along route 1A, two miles outside the city, and started walking.
The walk started out enjoyable and leisurely, but after a while the laughter and conversation tapered and we grew bitter and purposeful. We spoke only when complaining. The latex leggings had chafed my inner thighs, forcing me to walk bow-legged. Eric had to piss, but didn’t want to go on the side of the highway lest he draw attention. Caitlin’s geisha makeup had hardened and was starting to crack into hideous lines. Susannah felt light-headed, swerving as she tried to keep up the pace. Her face was severe, the way a vampire might look when taking a calculus exam.
An hour later we arrived in Salem center, tired and crabby, looking for a bar called “Bleachers”—a recommendation from one of Caitlin’s classmates at Salem State. Once we found it we understood the appeal; it was apparently the only open bar in Salem, judging from the stream of people that stretched from the door all the way around three city blocks: zombies, rock stars, sadomasochists, superheroes, cowboys, evil clowns, plus any tragic pop culture figures from the mid-90s, tastelessly put on display. It looked like a line of dead people, waiting to get into the afterlife. Either that or an open casting call for the Universal Studios theme park.
We got in line behind The Incredible Hulk and his girlfriend, who could have been either Pocahontas or Princess Leia. The Hulk was perfect: massively built, shirtless, ripped pants, his entire body painted green. He stood intently with his arms folded, frequently standing up on his tiptoes to gauge the line’s progress. In front of him was a rowdy group of young men that sounded like North Shore townies. Two of them weren’t even in costume, unless they were dressed as Limp Bizkit. The other two, however, were creative: one was wrapped in a full-body condom, with a hole for his face; the other had a plain white sheet stretched out around him, held firm by what looked like a network of sticks underneath. There was a large brown and yellow paint smear on the sheet. He was asked what the costume was at least forty times, to which he’d gleefully respond: “I’m a shit stain!” followed by the same obnoxious laugh.
The longer we waited, the louder and more unruly the crowd got. The group behind us started chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit!” They were dressed as hippies, which made things feel less like a costume party and more like an anti-war protest. A half hour would pass and we’d advance five feet. Susannah swayed back and forth. She didn’t look good, but it was hard to tell with all the vampire makeup. When I asked how she felt she just nodded and said nothing. She’d light a cigarette, take two drags and then let it fall from her fingers.
At one point a group of cheerleaders tried to cut the line, about fifty feet ahead of us. Four meatheads in blonde wigs, pleated skirts, saddle shoes and sweaters with iron-on W’s stretched across their tissue paper breasts. There was a lot of yelling, which escalated to pushing and shoving, and the cheerleaders were eventually denied access. People booed at the cheerleaders as they walked to the back of the line. “Fuck you, pussies!” the cheerleaders screamed back, jumping up and doing splits, thrusting middle fingers in the air.
After two hours the line started to move. It was midnight. The bar’s front door was in sight. We trudged forward like beaten-down refugees under the blazing sun, taking half steps as though our ankles were chained together. By this time the roar of the crowd had gone silent; all we heard was the thump of bass and the muted hoots and hollers from inside the bar, that and the shuffle of feet and the soft cries of despair that came from among us. I looked behind me and saw two M&M’s. They held each other up like wounded soldiers. “We’re gonna make it,” the red one said to the yellow one.
At 12:30 we made it to the door. The bouncers asked us for our IDs. I watched Susannah as she searched her bag. “You okay, hon?” I said. She nodded. Her eyes were glazed over, but she found her license and handed it to the doorman.
“We’ll get you some water once we're inside. You’ll be okay.”
Then the bouncer asked for my ID. I reached for my wallet.
“Oh no,” I said. “It’s at home. The suit doesn’t have any pockets.”
No matter how much we pleaded, the bouncer wouldn’t let me in without an ID. I apologized to my friends, but really I wasn’t sorry. I was glad I forgot my license. I just wanted to go home.
“Great,” Eric said as we walked away from the chaos of the bar. “Now we have a nice hour and a half walk back to the car.”
“At least it’s nice out,” I said. Then I heard my name, followed by a thud. We turned and saw Susannah lying face down in the street.
I ran to her and turned her on her back, holding her head up. She came to, and Eric and I helped her to her feet. “I’m okay,” she said. “I just need some water. I haven’t ate anything all day.”
“Danny, we should get her to the hospital,” Caitlin said.
“No, she’ll be fine. There’s gotta be a pizza place around here where we can get her some food.”
“Are you serious? She just fainted! She needs medical attention!” Caitlin screamed at me, her geisha makeup cracking and peeling off her face.
“Susannah, do you want to go to the hospital?” I said.
She shook her head.
“Of course she’s going to say no,” Caitlin said. “No one wants to go to the hospital. Let’s just get her there!”
“How?” I said, now screaming back. “What am I supposed to do? Look where we are right now!”
Then we heard gagging and purging. Susannah was bent over the sidewalk, vomiting.
“Oh shit,” I said, clutching the forehead of my Batman mask. I looked around for help. Across the town square was an ambulance, parked on the side of the street, its lights off.
I looked back at Susannah. She lied down onto the sidewalk and closed her eyes.
“Wait,” I said. I ran to her and picked her up in my arms. She was a petite girl and easy to carry. I turned and ran toward the ambulance, the Batman cape flying out behind me. “I’ve got you,” I said. “You’re gonna be okay.”
People turned and watched as I ran through the center of town, Susannah in my arms. Some of the onlookers cheered. “There he is,” I heard one voice say. “There’s the Batman.”
“We need to get her to the hospital,” I shouted through the ambulance’s driver’s side window. “Fast.” The EMT put down his meatball sub and helped me get Susannah onto a gurney and into the back of the ambulance. “She fainted, and then she threw up a couple times,” I told him. “I think she’s dehydrated.” He hooked her up to an IV. Caitlin and Eric met us at the tailgate. We all climbed in. The EMT hit the flashers, and we were off to North Shore Medical Center.
From that point on, the details are hazy. I remember the three of us in the emergency room waiting area—Batman, a geisha, and Alex from A Clockwork Orange, all sitting on a bench, drinking soda and eating potato chips that we bought from a vending machine. I remember the gunshot victim that was wheeled past us. I remember how the doctors kept Susannah overnight for observation, but in the end it was simple dehydration; maybe not simple, but certainly the best possible scenario, and curable with some intravenous fluids and a couple hospital meals.
And I remember finally taking my mask off when I got home, sitting on the edge of my bed, the same bed I slept in as a child, and thinking to myself: my job is done here.
* * * *
Eighteen years later I returned to Salem, this time without the Batman suit. There were four of us, another Halloween double date, but a new cast of characters: older, grayer, and half of us sober. We had lunch at a nice Italian place and then we strolled through the town square, nodding at costumed pirates, admiring hay sculptures that were “generously on loan” from local artists, and browsing through the wares of the many street vendors.
At one point someone suggested we get psychic readings, which are available every fifty feet or so. I don’t really subscribe to any of that stuff, but for thirty-five bucks a pop, it seemed like harmless fun, just another ride at this amusement park. We stopped at a place that offered tarot cards and palm readings. It looked less like a psychic parlor and more like the DMV: a big room with boring ceiling lights and partitions of velvet rope. No ambience, no crystal balls, no withered old ladies with blind eyes. Just a bunch of tables lined up next to each other, like the first round of a chess tournament. We walked up to the cashier, paid the fee and received a ticket—the standard kind of ticket you’d find at a state fair or the VFW’s annual spaghetti dinner.
“Just have a seat and we’ll call your number,” we were informed by a woman with pink hair and multiple nose rings.
We sat and waited. Dylan was the first to get his number called. He sat down at a table across from the Reverend Paul, the legendary healer and mystic, according to his bio, which I read on the back of a “10%-Off” coupon. Amanda and I were scheduled to go next, with different psychics.
Fifteen minutes later Dylan walked back to us. “It was pretty good,” he beamed. “I’m gonna live ‘til I’m eighty-six, and I’ll have my hair until my fifties.” In spite of his natural skepticism about most things, he seemed perfectly willing to accept this parapsychological prognosis.
Amanda’s number was called, but mine was not. While she met with her psychic at table six, I approached the pink-haired girl about my missing number.
“Oh, um, I think we double-booked you,” she said. “Sorry. I can get you an appointment with Lady Harza in…thirty minutes? Does that work?”
I get aggravated when my doctor’s office keeps me waiting, and that concerns my present-day health. “I’ll just take a refund,” I said, skipping the irritated stage and going right to solution mode.
The woman gave me my thirty-five bucks back and I returned to the bench to sit with Dylan and his girlfriend, Kelli, while Amanda met with her psychic. Dylan told us more about his reading: “It was okay. Reverend Paul said I had just met the woman who I’d be with for the rest of my life, and that we might have a boy…” Kelli blushed. Dylan continued. “He said that I’m usually a right-brained person but I have left-brain tendencies…um, what else…he said I’ll have a medical situation in my mid-fifties, but as long as I’m proactive about it I’ll be okay, and he said when I die it will be on my own terms, that I’ll just fade away.”
“Nice,” I said, as I watched Amanda get her reading. Her psychic was young and obese. She didn’t look like a fortune-teller; she looked like she’d be better suited behind the register of a Walmart, or in a hospital waiting room, demanding another Oxycontin prescription for her chronic gout. Amanda seemed enrapt, though. She nodded her head persistently. Towards the end of her reading, however, her head remained still.
When her fifteen minutes was up she rejoined us at the bench. “How’d it go?” I asked.
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Actually, I don’t feel that well. I think I just need to go home.”
"What," I said. "That idiot gave you a bad future?"
“Don’t believe any of that crap,” Dylan said. “You could walk across the street and get another reading, and you’ll get a completely different story.”
This didn’t seem to help. “No, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. I just…don’t feel that well. Sorry. But we should go.”
We cut the afternoon short, bid our friends farewell and walked to the municipal parking lot. When we got back into my Jeep, I turned to her: “Seriously, Amanda. What the hell happened back there? That’s all a crock of shit, you know, whatever she told you.”
Amanda stared straight ahead. “I guess we’ll just wait and see.”
She didn’t speak at all on the way home. The next day she felt better, but to this day she refuses to tell me what the psychic said.
She says it’s better if I don’t know.
My favorite part of Facebook is its birthday-reminder feature. It’s simple, efficient, and, most importantly, one-sided. The user is encouraged to “say something nice” or to “let so-and-so know you’re thinking of her”. No need to do something memorable, like include a D.H. Lawrence quote or type your message in Mandarin Chinese. You don’t even have to trouble yourself with spelling; a simple HBD will do, then you click a button, and your message is added to a group of names that the recipient will scroll through later in the day, making mental notes of who’s absent and comparing the total amount of wishes to those of other friends.
Unlike Facebook, a live person has the tendency to take it a step further and ask how your birthday feels, as though it’s a secondhand sport coat they just loaned you. This is especially true for “milestone” birthdays. Ask a person how it feels to turn twenty-one and you’re likely to hear “Awesome! I can finally throw away this Idaho driver’s license.” Ask a person who turns forty, like I did earlier this week, and you’ll probably hear one of two boilerplate responses. The first is the overly dramatic “it hasn’t sunk in yet”, as though they just received news that a loved one was murdered. The second is the cautiously optimistic “it wasn’t as bad as I thought”, which is most commonly associated with an extracted tooth or a prostate exam.
I’m considering two possible answers to this question. Maybe I’ll go with something cheeky, like “Turning forty feels great! I’m gonna treat myself to a bone density scan and then follow that up with a chemical peel!” But I’m leaning toward something that cuts right to the core, like “My back hurts when I sneeze, and no, I will not stop wearing my leather pants to the office, so fuck you.”
I’m not sure how different a person can feel the moment he or she turns forty. Age is a long, flat stretch of the Nebraska interstate; it’s hard for things to sneak up on you. A friend of mine told me that turning forty didn’t really hit him for about a week, like it was a pot brownie. “Holy shit,” he said one morning on his drive to work. “I’m forty years old. I’m forty…years…old.”
A year later the same friend told me that forty-one was even worse than forty. “Now I’m actually in my forties,” he said. “Before, I was just forty—singular. Now that it’s plural, it’s like…damn.”
When I told him that age is just an arbitrary number, he scoffed. “Yeah, easy for you to say. You’re still thirty-nine.”
What awaits us in our forties? A middle-aged version of the Hunger Games? Does a government agent show up at your house to confiscate all of your black t-shirts and Nike high tops?
One friend told me that significant physical and psychological changes do occur, not necessarily on your fortieth birthday, but somewhere in the early months of that year. “First off, your balls will drop two to three inches,” he said. “And you’ll become less tolerant of some things, but more tolerant of others. For instance: I will not budge when it comes to politics or how I raise my kids, but when it comes to rock bands reuniting with a new lead singer, I’ve softened my stance. Three years ago I would have been like ‘fuck no, Journey without Steve Perry is sacrilegious’. Now I’m totally cool with it. Something bizarre happens when you enter that decade.”
Others contend that if you want to feel young, spend more time around young people. Because nothing says Carpe Diem like a group of twenty-five year-olds checking their Instagram feeds. I work with a significant amount of young people, and whenever I broach a cultural topic with them, they usually preface each answer with their birth year: “I was born in 1990, Danny. How would I know what Woodstock is?”
I can’t argue with this. How would they know? They don’t listen to the radio or watch television, and it’s not like they have a little electronic box at their disposal that can answer any conceivable question in a matter of milliseconds.
As a test, I asked an intern if she could name the three countries that constituted the “Axis of Evil” in World War Two. She chewed on her carrot stick and made a face that implied either the vegetable was rotten or my question was a nuisance. Finally she shrugged and said “Russia, the Middle East, and I forget the third one.”
“Oh for three,” I said. “Not bad.”
After lunch the Human Resources Manager informed me that many liberal arts schools had begun curtailing their history curriculum, omitting certain events that students might find troubling, like war.
“What could be troubling about World War Two?” I said. “We’re talking about the Greatest Generation here.” She promptly responded that the term “Greatest Generation” had been deemed inflammatory in some college classrooms, as it sets an unfair standard for future generations. She then suggested I apologize to the intern for asking her a question she couldn’t answer, which could have potentially damaged her self-esteem. This is like being sued for negligence by a burglar who trips over your coffee table and breaks his knee.
Words were not readily available, so I stared at the HR Manager and made a face that reminded me of my father, the look he gave me whenever he caught me talking to myself, as I often did as a child, staging make-believe interviews with Johnny Carson while dressed in the blazer and tie from my First Communion. This is the face I’ve employed most often in response to today’s youth: slack-jawed, eyes narrowed. It’s not disgust, or shock, or anger; it’s disorientation, the way a senior citizen stares at a shopping mall site map, trying to calculate where they are in relation to the Cheesecake Factory.
I’ve tried to connect with the young people at work, but they speak in a hybrid language I don’t understand, a mixture of acronyms like FOMO, euphemisms like “Netflix and Chill”, and clinical terms like microaggressor. The other day a coworker told me he was going to meet “the fuckboy”. Upon seeing my look of bewilderment, he clarified: “Oh, that’s what I call my weed dealer,” he said.
I sighed and shook my head, remembering a simpler time, when drug dealers were named after whichever fast food restaurant they routinely met you at.
At work, there are three other men my age. The four of us have formed a lunchtime support group, where we walk to the health foods store and talk about the 80s. Some days we’ll engage in a light debate over rock bands, like Poison versus Motley Crue, other days we’ll take a headier tack and discuss the more controversial episodes of a popular family sitcom like Silver Spoons.
Thanks to my support group I now feel less alone among young people. I can even eat lunch with them in the kitchen, provided there’s at least one other person at the table that can quote The Lost Boys or dance like Vanilla Ice. We don’t need to speak, just the occasional eye contact over our sixteen-dollar Whole Foods’ salads while the rest of the kitchen breaks into a heated argument over Jennifer Lawrence’s career.
“You’re just getting old and bitter,” my friends tell me. “Don’t you think every generation looks at its successors with disappointment?” Maybe so, but there is one fundamental characteristic that seems to be dwindling with each new guard: suffering. Not real suffering, like incurable polio, but quasi-suffering, like growing up without a rewind button on your Walkman, or wearing generic sneakers on the first day of school. Suffering, like it or not, is the taproot of character: the easier life gets, the worse people are at it. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever my bowel disease flares up and I can’t make it to the bathroom in time.
When I was twenty-two I was the assistant to a movie producer in Los Angeles. Twelve hours a day sitting at a desk, headset on, listening to her phone calls. Rare was the day she didn’t publicly humiliate or degrade me for something inconsequential. She’d walk through her Benedict Canyon home, cell phone pressed against her ear, talking to some actor or director, all the while searching for a reason to demoralize me. Usually she’d stop her conversation mid-sentence and address me over the phone: “…I think this character would be a fabulous departure for you after that last—Danny, are you a fucking moron? How could you feed those cats pâté? Let me say it slowly this time, so you understand: Chunks…in…water. Jesus Christ, do you have a fucking brain, or don’t you?”
It’s one thing to be called an idiot in private, but in front of Ray Liotta? I’ve been consoled by Whoopi Goldberg because she felt so bad for me. I’ve been forced to apologize to Jared Leto for sending him the wrong Hermes scarf, to which he replied, “Dude, it’s no problem. Really. Please stop crying.” There is a select group of celebrities out there—some of them personal favorites—who’ve listened awkwardly to the sounds of my torture over such offenses as misplaced yoga mats or unpaid dry cleaning bills.
Every job I’ve had has come with its own demeaning quality. If I wasn’t getting yelled at in the professional world I was serving rich people in Newbury Street restaurants or parking their cars at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Do you know how to drive this car, or should we get someone who knows what the fuck he’s doing? This isn’t a bloody Honda, mate,” Rod Stewart said as he handed me the keys to his Rolls Royce.
“Yes sir,” I said, nodding subserviently and then driving his car to the VIP lot, where I thoroughly searched his glove box for drugs.
Maybe I’m biased, but I can’t see millennials enduring that kind of garden-variety abuse without a civil lawsuit. The interns at my office have their own parking spots. They make special requests for ergonomic keyboards. They ask the receptionist for restaurant suggestions when their parents are visiting. They sit in client meetings and interrupt senior-level management. They are important, they are special, and they demand to be treated with respect, but they can’t tell you who the president was before Reagan.
Now that I’ve set foot into my forties, it’s time to give something back to society. That something is pain, humiliation and suffering. You may think it’s sadistic or counterproductive, but slowly you’ll begin to see and hear the difference. Our popular music will sound less like Imagine Dragons and more like Bob Dylan. Movies will look less like The Fault In Our Stars and more like Midnight Cowboy. Fewer staged photographs will appear on social media, the kind with a coffee mug, a folded New York Times and a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, all artfully arranged atop a rustic kitchen table. Happiness will become a reward, and no longer a curated experience.
* * * *
“In a recent interview, Malcolm Gladwell said, quote, the only interest Mr. Pellegrini’s so-called ‘Crusade of Suffering’ serves is that of his own ego. A New Yorker editorial called you ‘grandiose, bitter, and incapable of adapting to a changing social climate’. There are a lot of critics out there who call you a fraud; some have even said you’re a cult leader. So let’s go on the record, once and for all: who is Danny Pellegrini, and why should I care?”
I leaned back in my chair and thought about it for a moment. “Terry, let me tell you a story,” I said. But before I could continue I was cut short by the sound of footsteps.
“Who are you talking to this early in the morning?”
I looked up and saw my girlfriend, Amanda, standing in the doorway to my study, making that disoriented face.
A lot has changed now that I’m old, but I still do the make-believe interviews. Only now they’re with NPR, not Carson.
For most of my adult life I’ve followed a few simple rules:
1. When friends move away, stop being friends with them.
2. Don’t do anything that doesn’t directly or immediately benefit you.
3. Never answer the phone, unless it’s your dealer.
Rudimentary versions of these rules can be traced back to my early days. As a child, I never quite grasped the concept of other people. I knew they existed, of course; I saw them everywhere around me, the same way Charlton Heston sees the Romans in Ben-Hur: as hundreds of extras in a large-scale Hollywood production. Day players in costume, added to the background for the sake of realism.
Unless they offered me goods or a service—dinner, allowance, a sleepover, a game of stickball—other people were an inconvenience. Take my grandmother, for example. She was a sweet-natured, jolly Italian woman, but she never bought me any Transformers or G.I. Joes, so I was not deeply affected by her death. “Gee,” I thought when I got word of her passing, “there goes my regular supply of waffle cookies.” I pleaded with my mom to let me skip her funeral. “Why does it matter if I go? I’m just gonna sit there and do nothing! What’s the point of that? Oh, you’re going to take away my allowance now? Fine, I’ll go, but I’m not gonna have a good time!”
As the years passed, my friends and relatives expected less and less of me. In my twenties I’d get the random call from my mother, informing me of the latest family news: “Danny, have you talked to your sister lately?”
“No. I don’t know, maybe. Why?”
“You should give her a call. She had a baby this morning.”
“Cool,” I said, lying on my couch, dusting marijuana ash off my shirt. I had forgotten my sister was even pregnant. An hour later I remembered to call her then decided against it. She’s obviously busy, I thought. Besides, what are we going to talk about? She’s probably had fifty phone calls already, why would mine be any different? She won’t even be able to pay attention to the conversation. She has a newborn baby, for Christ’s sake—the thing’ll start crying when I’m in the middle of saying something, and I’ll get annoyed.
I’ll catch up with her later.
Later became December. I showed up at her house for Christmas dinner and saw a nine month-old girl sitting on her living room floor. “Oh yeah,” I said. “There’s the kid you had.”
In my late twenties, friends started getting married. I’d sort through a month’s worth of mail and find the occasional wedding invitation mixed in with the takeout menus and past due notices. Usually I’d open the invitations and read them while taking a shit. “So…you request the pleasure of my company,” I’d say, a cigarette dangling from my lips, the smoke rising into my eyes. I’d scan the calligraphy text, searching for a reason not to attend. Most often it was the location. If it was within state lines I’d consider it, filing the invite away with other “pending” mail: hospital bills, AAA renewals, letters from collection agencies—basically anything that didn’t pose an immediate threat to my cable service.
Invitations to weddings that took place outside of Massachusetts were filed in my trash. I took offense to anyone who expected me to fly to Savannah for a week or climb a mountain in Peru just to watch them get married at sunset by an ordained Sherpa. These extravaganzas are known as “Destination Weddings”, as in, “Come and buy a ringside seat to our honeymoon!”
My closest childhood friend moved to San Francisco after college, met a girl from the Bay Area, and got married in Napa Valley. He had sent me an invite a year in advance. That was followed by a couple texts over the next few months: “Hey Danny, how are you??? Let’s catch up soon.” When those went unreturned, the texts got more specific: “Hey bro, just want to make sure you got my wedding invite. You’re gonna be there, right? Won’t be the same without you.”
Eventually the texts became phone calls. Whenever his number appeared on my caller ID I’d silence the phone and hide it under my pillow. I wasn’t man enough to face it. Each of his calls conjured a different childhood memory of the two of us—playing army as kids, dating girls in junior high—and I watched those memories wither and evaporate. An entire lifelong friendship, nullified from existence. Still, it was easier than answering the phone, and certainly easier than buying a plane ticket.
Two months before the wedding I received another text: “Dude. Just please RSVP. Please. You don’t have to come. Just please let us know.” I wanted to respond, but when the time came to type the letters into the message field, I froze. Texting him back would have made it real, would have made me accountable. Instead I stashed the phone under my pillow, closed my eyes, covered my ears, and silently wished he would disappear from my life forever.
A few weeks later I received a final text: “Hope you’re ok, buddy. Be well.”
With that chapter closed, I could finally move on with my life.
* * * *
On November 30th, 2013, I checked myself into a rehab facility for drug addiction. When I got out, I found a sponsor who took me through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The program had the formidable task of deconstructing those three basic rules by which I had lived my entire adult life. AA taught me that other people were not just disposable extras in my life story, but that they were stars too, with their own movies, although probably not as Oscar-worthy as mine. I learned that incoming phone calls only seem scary, but when you walk through that fear and answer them, they’re actually not so bad. I learned that happiness has little to do with what you get, and everything to do with what you give.
“Dude, that’s the biggest load of shit I have ever heard in my life. Do you hear what’s coming out of your mouth right now? You sound like a fucking Ted Talk.”
My sponsor and I sat at a booth in the Thinking Cup, a coffee shop on Tremont, discussing my ninth step amends: the part of the recovery process where I have to confront all the people I’ve harmed, apologize, and offer to make some sort of restitution. On our table was a sheet of notebook paper: fourteen names, listed in blue ink—collateral damage from a life of substance abuse.
I continued. “I didn’t harm these people. Most of them, I just fell out of touch with. It happens. I’m forty years old, for Christ’s sake.”
My sponsor looked down at his right knee, where he kept his phone perched during our meetings. “I know, but…” He spoke to me while texting someone. “You avoided them. Your addictive, self-centered behavior prevented you from showing up for these people when they asked you to. That’s a kind of harm.”
I let out a long breath and thought about Angela. Angela was a college friend who I dated for a few months. Our romance ended when I showed up at her apartment one night, high on cocaine, and accused her of flirting with a thirty year-old investment banker at the bar earlier that evening. “He’s my cousin, you sick fuck,” she said. But I wouldn’t hear it. I exploded into a fit of rock star-style rage and proceeded to trash her bedroom. It was a lackluster attempt since the only trashable items were the menagerie of stuffed animals on her bed. One by one I picked them up and hurled them against the wall: first the giraffe, then Simba from the Lion King, then a Dalmatian, and then a purple frog. For my finale I picked up two furry dolphins and repeatedly knocked their heads together.
“Dolphin whores!” I growled, spit flying from my mouth. Angela stood in the corner and stared at me, horrified and bewildered.
She moved to New York after graduation. Surprisingly, we stayed friends and kept in touch for a couple years. She always asked me to come down and visit for a weekend. I’d say yeah, love to, but I never went. Finally she stopped asking. I didn’t hear from her again until 2009, when I received an invitation to her wedding in New Zealand. I placed the invitation on a pile of unpaid parking tickets, vowing at least to RSVP, which, to my credit, I did—in 2011.
She messaged me on Facebook a couple years ago and told me she was pregnant. They don’t allow phones in rehab, so I didn’t get the message until a few months later. I sent her a “congrats!” to which she never responded. I figured that was the end of it.
Until last night. After nearly two years of radio silence she texted me, asking if I’d like to come down to her new home in Connecticut and meet her husband, Paul, and their son. I was welcome to stay the night in their guest bedroom. She wrote that she’d been reading my blog and was happy I was clean and sober. The text ended with “Please come, Danny. It would be so great to see you.”
I hadn’t responded yet.
My sponsor looked at me over his coffee cup. “Is Angela on your amends list?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you need to write her back, today, and you need to go down there and make amends.”
“Why can’t I just call her and do it over the phone? Do I really have to go down there and waste an entire Saturday night in Bumblefuck, Connecticut?”
“I take it you don’t want to go down there.”
“Of course not.”
“That’s why you have to go. Remember the story of the good wolf and the bad wolf. They are constantly in battle. Whichever wolf you feed is the one that wins.” He finished his coffee and drummed his knuckles on the table. “Okay let’s wrap this up and go look at sunglasses."
In addition to helping me navigate the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, my sponsor has proven quite useful in other, less spiritual matters as well. Were it not for his guidance I’d still be buying my clothes at Target, instead of boutique shops on Newbury Street, the kind that are named after a single person. Nor would I have discovered the slim wallet, Netflix documentaries or Kiehl’s anti-aging skin cream. My sponsor is like a human Esquire magazine subscription. I call him when I have a question about anything, from gastro pub recommendations to retirement planning, so it was natural that I reached out to him when I found myself in Bethel, Connecticut, without a gift for my host family.
“Find a toy store and get the kid a stuffed animal or something like that. That’ll be good,” he advised.
I found a general store on route 302 and bought a Cuddlekins Siberian Husky for the kid and a gallon of apple cider for the parents. When I pulled up in front of their house, at three in the afternoon, the driveway was empty. I grabbed the toy, the cider and my bag, walked up to the front door, took a deep breath and rang the bell. No one answered. A dog yipped from inside. I rang again. Nothing. Again the dog barked. I got back into my Jeep and waited.
Thirty minutes later a BMW pulled into the driveway. A man got out. He wore a pink Polo shirt with the collar up, gray slacks and leather slip-on loafers. It looked like he was talking to himself, until I noticed the little Blue Tooth device lodged in his ear. He grabbed a set of golf clubs from the trunk and started toward the front door.
I got out of my Jeep. The man saw me and held up his hand—either as a “hello” or a “wait there”—then pointed to his ear. This is a common gesture that translates to “I’m an important asshole.” He walked in through the side door, still talking on the phone. I stood on the front lawn holding a jug of apple cider and a stuffed animal.
Eventually he came back out, a microbrew in hand, a sweater tied around his neck.
“Dave?” he said.
“Right. Paul Wilmont. Angela’s husband.”
For twenty minutes Paul Wilmont and I made small talk. He complained about the condition of the greens on the back nine at Bellingham Country Club. He complained about his clients from Bear Stearns. He complained about Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback. He complained about the nanny’s work visa. In an effort to assimilate, I complained about how deceptively hard it was to replace my condo’s front door. “I need to find a handyman to finish the job,” I said. “The door is off the hinges, just leaning against the doorjamb. Hopefully no one will break in, but…”
Angela arrived, carrying a canvas tote bag in one arm and her son in the other. We exchanged pleasantries and she introduced me to her son, Dodson. She then pointed to the dog. “And that little guy is George,” she said. I felt like telling her she had the names reversed, but I held my tongue.
I presented the apple cider and the toy puppy to my hosts. Angela made an elaborate thank you overture and offered the stuffed animal to Dodson, who pushed it away. She offered it again and he smacked at it violently, this time with a piercing “no!”
“It’s okay, Doddy. You don’t have to play with it,” she said through a smile. She set the Husky on the other side of the couch, out of his sight, then turned to me. “Don’t take it personally.”
“No, I’m sorry, I just thought…” I couldn’t believe I apologized for buying the kid a forty-dollar gift.
“Really, don’t worry about it.” She forgave me. As though I accidentally elbowed her son in the head or showed him the last twenty minutes of The Exorcist.
I don’t have any children, but most of my friends do. When I give their kids a present, I get a thank you, even if the parent has to coax it out of them. My godson sends me thank you notes just for playing Star Wars with him for ten minutes. Angela’s house observed a different code of etiquette, more like Ancient Rome: if the gifts were not deemed satisfactory then they were discarded, and the gift bearer was shamed.
In the living room we snacked on Vienna sausage, figs, assorted cheeses and miniature slices of bread. The food was artfully arranged on a piece of slate, which was like dining off my mother’s front walkway. Angela suggested I try the butter. When I asked what made it so special she revealed its mystery: goat milk and a hint of Gouda cheese. Now even my palette felt inferior.
She flipped her hair back and bit into a gherkin. “So, Danny, tell me, how have you been?”
We caught up on old times while her husband snored in his recliner and her kid routinely threw Tinker Toys against the wall. Angela asked about my life in the days leading up to rehab. I gave her the abridged version. “…I couldn’t eat any solid food. Most days I couldn’t get out of bed until I had a fix,” I said, looking down at my feet. “One of my dealers was going to kill me for ripping him off. It got so bad I thought about, you know, ending it all…” I looked up and saw Dodson sitting on his mother’s lap, while she read quietly to him, a story of a missing green sheep.
Angela announced that dinner would be at six, and that the Galvins would be joining us. The Galvins were a young couple that lived nearby. They too had a two year-old son, Smith. The thought of a duplicate set of WASPs made me uneasy, but I stayed positive and tried to keep it light.
“Smith?” I said. “Does he have a first name?”
Angela laughed. “Danny…you haven’t changed at all. God bless you.” The implication being that if she could, Angela would trade it all in—her “rustic” farmhouse, her cashmere throw blankets, her professionally curated stack of hickory firewood—for a chance to be simple again. I have come to understand this dynamic as reverse class envy: You don’t want our life. I know it seems fabulous, but really, it’s a burden. Life was so much easier before it required a tax attorney on a monthly retainer.
The Galvins arrived at quarter to six. While the boys played on the living room floor, the two couples hammed it up in the kitchen. Their conversation reminded me of the kind of vapid chatter usually reserved for a golf foursome, pointless dribble about NFL injuries and trendy diets. I sat on the couch like a satellite, a strange piece of inner-city debris that had drifted into their suburban orbit.
Dinner was served in the “country room”—pan-seared salmon with truffle oil mashed potatoes and a side of fresh green beans. The vegetables were topped with a lemony cheese sauce that had a delightfully thin consistency and looked exactly like the snot that collected on Dodson’s upper lip during the entire meal.
“Sorry about the boogies,” Angela said. “But we read that wiping his nose only reinforces the idea that something about him needs fixing, which in the long run can lead to self-esteem issues.”
“That’s interesting,” I said, curious as to whether they applied the same theory to diaper changing. It was likely, given the smell of feces that had wafted over from the high chair for the last fifteen minutes.
Afterward we retired to the living room, where we all sat around the two boys, marveling at them, deciphering their syntax, interpreting their behavior, predicting their futures. “Smith loves falling face down on the couch. He’s so trusting.” Or “Dodson keeps his toys very organized. Our pediatrician says that’s the hallmark of a highly analytical mind.”
I wondered what my parents said about me when I was a toddler. “Danny is fascinated with Great White Sharks, but he cries whenever he sees a picture of one. Why is he such a fucking pansy?” Or “My son tried to negotiate his way out of his grandmother’s funeral. He’ll grow up to be a selfish prick, just like his deadbeat uncle.” Then it occurred to me that my parents never evaluated me. They never showcased me at family gatherings. In fact, I wasn’t allowed at them. They were for the adults, to sit around a table drinking Cutty Sark, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and swearing like sailors. If I wandered into the room someone scooped me up and returned me to the nearest television set.
Finally at eight o’clock the Galvins packed up Smith and his bag of toys and went home. Paul went to his study to read the Wall Street Journal and make some calls. Angela poured herself a glass of wine and we sat at the kitchen table.
“Listen Angela,” I said. “As part of my recovery, I need to make an amends to you. For coming to your apartment that night, senior year, totally wasted, and accusing you of doing things you didn’t do. And especially for not being in touch the last fifteen years. I was selfish. I didn’t care about other people. You reached out many times and I ignored you.”
Angela set her glass down on the table. “Thank you, Danny. I appreciate that. I hope that’s not the only reason you came down here,” she said, smiling warmly.
“Of course not,” I said, lying. “If there’s anything I can do to help fix the wrongs I’ve done in the past, please let me know.” I always add this last part with the presumption that no one will take me up on the offer. No one has yet, anyway.
“Well, actually,” Angela said. “Paul and I were thinking of playing tennis tomorrow morning, but we couldn’t find a sitter, and the club daycare isn’t available on Sundays. Would you be willing to watch Dodson until noon-ish tomorrow?”
I stared at her for a moment, then forced myself to swallow. “Sure. Absolutely.”
We talked for a little while longer, then at ten thirty Angela showed me to the guest bedroom. I got in bed and watched a Netflix documentary on my iPhone, then fell asleep.
My alarm woke me up at five in the morning. It was still dark out. I made the bed, grabbed my bag and tiptoed out to the living room. The house was silent and still. The babycam monitor on the kitchen table showed a grainy shot of Dodson asleep in his crib, an image I recognized from the Paranormal Activity films. I thought about leaving a note for Angela and Paul, then decided against it. The house didn’t have an alarm system, so that was good. I had to pee, which I could easily do in the front yard.
I served my purpose here. It was time to go.
As I reached for the doorknob something caught my eye under the glow of a nightlight: the Cuddlekins Siberian Husky, next to the couch, where Angela stashed it. I crept over to it, picked it up and looked into its eyes.
“Don’t take this personally,” I said. Then I wound up and hurled it against the living room wall, just for old time’s sake.
It’s time to sell my condo and move up in the world. In preparation, I met with a realtor to discuss my property value. He cited a few areas where upgrades were necessary, the first being the clapboard siding on the front of the house. “I’m only saying this from experience,” he said, “but wood rot is a major turnoff. It was the first thing I noticed when I parked my car.”
I can no longer deny this. My house is an eyesore, a decayed tooth in a row of newly composited veneers. My street is lined with taupes and tans and warm grays and cool grays—the entire range of Benjamin Moore neutrals—and then there’s me: a three-story house the color of a cancerous lung. The exterior was last painted in the early eighties, in a shade of brown called “Spicy Mustard”. The color has since been discontinued, not because of lead or any other toxic additives, but because of its aesthetic offense.
“Not only is the rot a cosmetic problem,” the realtor continued, “it can also indicate collateral damage beneath the surface. Let’s go outside. I’ll show you.”
We walked downstairs to the sidewalk and stared up at the building. The house, as a whole, looked ill. Arthritic. Jaundiced. Mangy. I wasn’t sure what would benefit it more: vinyl siding or a dialysis machine. I bought the place when I was a breezy, semi-ambitious twenty-nine year old. I thought owning a rundown fixer-upper would be cool and unpretentious, that I’d teach myself some home improvement skills and turn it into a labor of love. But ten years peeled away fast, and the only thing I rehabilitated in that time was my opiate addiction. And that was in 2013.
“See this here?” the realtor said, pointing at a first floor window. The frame was porous and denuded, like a piece of driftwood that had washed ashore. I winced as he snapped off a few splinters from the corner and chiseled out a fingertip’s worth of mushy pine. “This is no good. Rain water, melted snow, it can leak right through this into the sheetrock, and then you’ve got more problems.”
I thought about the bulb that had formed in the wall of the second floor stairwell, just after our third major snowstorm last winter. It was as if a tumor had grown underneath the plaster. By late February it had gotten so big and grotesque I thought it would rupture, and that an army of tarantulas would crawl out through the fissure. Since renters occupy the other two units, no one seemed to care enough to make a fuss. Finally, in March, the owner of the second floor condo came by to install some new light fixtures in his unit. He knocked on my door. “Danny, did you see the wall downstairs?” I played dumb and followed him down to the second floor landing. The entire wall looked pregnant, like it had some large animal stuck in its gullet.
“Jesus. How did that happen?” I said. He stared at me, his jaw hung open as he searched for a place to direct his anger and confusion. Then he just shook his head and said he’d call his carpenter for a quote.
All of my encounters with the second floor owner had a similar dynamic: he’d confront me about an obvious problem in the house—a stripped keyhole or frozen pipe or flooded basement—and I’d act as surprised as he was, as though I’d just returned home from a three-month overseas trip. Or he’d straight-out call me on my negligence, like the time I threw the ventilation duct in the garbage because it kept falling off the dryer. He found it sticking out of a trashcan and carried it up to my unit.
“That thing’s important?” I said, pointing at the six-foot aluminum hose. “It’s been lying on the floor next to the washing machine for the last five months. I figured it wasn’t necessary, so I tossed it.”
“Well, it ventilates carbon monoxide out of the house, so, yeah, it’s pretty necessary.”
“Shit,” I said, scratching the back of my head. “I guess we should put it back on.”
To his credit, he’s always been reasonably patient and civil towards me. On my second night after moving in he came upstairs to introduce himself, then informed me that his girlfriend was allergic to marijuana and asked if I could kindly exhale my pot smoke toward an open window.
“I’d say you’re looking at around ten thousand for new siding,” the realtor said. “You’ll want to go with vinyl. You know what they say: vinyl’s final.”
Ten grand? Did he not notice that my living room TV stand was a child’s bedside table, laid flat on its side? If I’m going to spend ten thousand bucks it will be for something stainless steel, marble, or solid gold, not for a material I associate with fake bomber jackets.
“Talk to the condo association about it,” he said. “Split three ways, it might not be so painful.”
I nodded. Sure, I’ll talk to the association, which sounds funny since the association consists of only three people. An “association” implies annual conferences at the Marriot and a rating by J.D. Power & Associates, not three 30-something bachelors whose only other memberships include Gold’s Gym and Draftkings.com.
We looked at the house for one final moment, in silence, as though we were standing graveside, paying an old friend our last respects. A freak hailstorm had occurred a week before and left an indelible mark: random wood splints jutting out from the window frames, small divots in the clapboard, debris scattered on the sidewalk. Ten years of foot traffic had stripped the front steps of their paint; lack of maintenance had let the risers decay into tendons of shredded wood. My house was no longer a house. It was a pulled pork sandwich. It looked like a hideout for outlaws, after the sheriff’s posse had emptied several thousand rounds of ammunition into it. I pictured Butch and Sundance sneaking out the back door, wearing nothing but gun belts and britches.
I glanced over my shoulder and saw a young man in a tailored suit walking out of the brand new apartment complex across the street. He hit a button on his keychain and with a beep-beep he simultaneously unlocked his Lexus and started the ignition. As he drove off I noticed an “MD” on his rear license plate. I looked down at my pajama bottoms and flip-flops, and sighed.
Back in my unit I asked the realtor if anything could be done about the pitch in the floor. “It’s really noticeable at that end of the kitchen, by the back door, and also in the bedroom,” I said. My pitched floor is the reason I still have black and white vinyl tiles in my kitchen and a gray threadbare carpet in the bedroom, both of which I inherited with the condo. The kitchen tiles I can live with, but the bedroom carpet is so old that the more heavily trodden areas have darkened over time, reminding me of large urine stains, or the feet outlines on the floorboard of my father’s ‘87 Honda Prelude. It disturbs me to think what kind of microorganisms might reside in the threads. I can’t replace the carpet without dealing with the pitch, and how can I possibly consider flattening an entire subfloor when I can’t even mount a spice rack on my kitchen wall?
“The floor doesn’t bother me so much,” the realtor said. “I’ve sold a lot of properties with pitched floors. It happens in older houses. They set over time. It’s natural. The house just finds its own comfort level.”
Well, so long as the fucking house is comfortable. What good are level floors when your house is suffering from hypertension or chronic back pain or—worse—social anxiety disorder? You think it can’t happen to your house, but it does.
“What about that liquid leveler stuff?” I said.
The realtor curled his lips inward and stared hard at the floor, then shook his head. “I really wouldn’t mess around with any of that. Although…you could install a softer wood, something like bamboo, and just lay it horizontally instead of vertically. The planks are only a few inches wide, so they’ll be able to go with the incline.”
I gave him a friendly tap on the shoulder. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
A pitched floor is the ultimate black eye. You can’t hang a picture over it or hide it in the closet. When people buy houses, they expect the floors to be level, the same way they expect both sleeves to be the same length when they try on a sweater. Like an STD or a drunk driving charge, there is no positive way to spin it. I imagined the realtor showing my place to discerning young buyers: “Some people think pitched floors actually make a house more relatable” or “The good news is the house is comfortable. You want to see something painful? Take a look at those new buildings down the street—bolt upright, like they’re posing for a wedding picture. This house is more…relaxed.”
The pitch itself is not that big of a deal—it’s not like I need a grappling hook to walk the five feet from my kitchen table to my bedroom door. The problem is the residual effects. For instance: I can’t put a single piece of tall furniture against the far wall of my bedroom without it leaning toward me. There’s no danger of anything toppling over, but still, I don’t want my bureau puffing its chest out at me when I get dressed in the morning. The psychological impact is even greater on my cat: I’ve seen her swat at a tennis ball and then watch as it veers from its normal course to a more supernatural trajectory, as though aliens have interfered with my condo’s magnetic field. The cat’s eyes widen as the ball loops around in a semi-circle. Once it starts rolling back toward her she shrieks and then scurries under the bed, where she hides until the ball is removed from the premises.
“Now, the kitchen…” the realtor said. I waited for him to finish the sentence, but instead he clicked his tongue a few times and let out a long breath. This is a familiar tactic used by anyone who’s about to cushion bad news. First they disclose the general problem area. Then, if possible, they lead with something positive and self-evident. Then they hit you with a devastating reality. My gastroenterologist does this all the time: “Now, your colonoscopy results…first of all, you’re still young. Your speech is good, your hearing is good, and we’re able to sit here and have this conversation. All of this is good. But you do have a hole in your colon, which is probably causing the abdominal pain, as well as that gooey substance leaking from your belly button.”
I tensed up as the realtor looked around my kitchen. “The good news is that everything makes sense. You have a fridge over here and a stove there and a sink there,” he said, gesturing to each appliance. He turned the faucet on. “The water comes out when I turn the knob. Definitely a plus.” He squatted down, searching for another positive characteristic. “You have a gas line over here, so check that off the list. The recessed lighting in the ceiling is…acceptable. All of the fundamentals are sound. But there are a few things you definitely need to address, and believe me, the kitchen is a tipping point. First, these cabinets either need to be updated, or at the very least nailed firmly to the wall. Secondly, this countertop has to go. Butcher block Formica hasn’t been in style since the eighties. You should upgrade your appliances to stainless steel, too. And it wouldn’t hurt to get a dishwasher in here, even a small one.” He wiped his forehead and sighed. “And while you’re at it either cut a window in that wall or just knock it down entirely, open the room up a bit. That’s a pretty big deal though, since there’s electrical running through it…”
I felt lightheaded. My bowels filled with water. “Can I at least keep the artwork?” I said, trying to add a little levity to the proceedings. “Or do I need to replace that, too?”
“Frankly, if I were going to put this place on the market and show it to potential buyers, I might swap that Indiana Jones poster with something a little more…I don’t know…relevant. Those nuances make all the difference.” He stepped back, took a long look and made one final assessment. “You might consider hiring an interior designer and a structural engineer and doing a complete kitchen remodel. Gut the whole thing and start from scratch.”
I nodded. I felt both beaten and humiliated, as though some college professor had just told me my final paper was incoherent drivel but was giving me a chance to rewrite it. Part of me was angry with the professor because I stayed up all night writing the paper, but the rational part of my mind was angry with myself, because the paper was assigned ten years ago.
The realtor sensed my defeat. “Look, no matter what, you’ve got one major thing working in your favor: location. This is South Boston. Yes, there are projects on both sides of you. Yes, there’s a methadone clinic around the corner. But that’s city living. I sold a newly renovated place two houses down from here for three hundred and twenty five thousand, and it’s a hundred and fifty square feet smaller than this place.”
I brightened up. “No shit?”
“You’ve seen all the luxury condos sprouting up in the neighborhood, haven’t you?”
I thought of the young doctor and the ignition button on his keychain. “Of course. There’s construction all over the place. When I first bought this place I had a three-sixty view of the city; now all I see are windows into nicer apartments.”
The realtor studied me for a moment. “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret, and you didn’t hear it from me. Have a seat.” We sat on the couch. He pulled out an iPad and started Googling. I noticed a college class ring jammed onto his chubby pinky.
He spoke while he surfed the web. “These developers are spending millions and millions of dollars. They jump through a lot of hoops to get permits in this part of town. They also cut a lot of corners to get around certain building codes.
“If I were you, I’d start making a stink about each one of these high-rise condo complexes going up around here. Get vocal. Attend the town hall meetings. Contact your district’s congressman. Here…” He pulled up a boston.com article and showed it to me. “There’s a ninety-unit apartment complex going up less than a block from here. Plus a parking garage, supermarket and private dog park. They’re set to break ground in the spring, with a 2017 completion date.”
“And?” I sensed something cunning on the way, and it thrilled me.
“This parking garage holds sixty-five cars. The building has ninety apartments. By Massachusetts state law, each tenant is required to have at least point-nine parking spaces. How did they get around that? Zoning variance. And variances can be very hard to get when the community is actively rallying against them. Where are all those extra cars going to park? Not to mention visitors. What about all that extra traffic? You don’t think it will affect you?”
“So you’re saying…”
“I’m not saying anything, but if I were saying something it would be this: I know people, locals from around here. They complain about a new construction project, the extra traffic, the blocked view, what have you. And then, suddenly, they have a new roof deck, or maybe brand new siding, or a new kitchen. Then they stop complaining, the construction moves forward, and both sides come out smiling. I mean, really, what’s ten or twelve grand when you’re talking about a hundred million bucks on the line?”
“Hush money,” I said, almost a whisper. I leaned back into my couch, star struck at the notion. Corrupt developers, dirty politicians, crooked unions, and me: the one man who could bring it all crashing down…but sells out and takes a payoff instead.
“You have to do your research though. And there’s no guarantee.” I was still daydreaming when he dropped his standard leave-behind on my coffee table. “My card’s in there, and any other boilerplate info about our services. Give me a call if you have any questions. And here, this is for you, too.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a travel mug, beer koozie and keychain, all branded with his name and face and real estate office logo.
We shook hands and I showed him out. As the front door shut behind him I snapped out of my reverie and remembered all the problem areas we hadn’t even addressed. Such as:
-- A bedroom closet that’s ten inches deep, which means shoes have to be turned sideways, flush against the wall, and then stacked on top of each other. It also means the hangers have to be turned at a forty-five degree angle just so the door can close.
-- The archaic heating system: baseboard electrical units like those found in a Howard Johnson’s motel room, thirty years ago. My condo has no wall thermostat; the heat is adjusted manually on each heater, with a dial that goes from OFF to 6.
-- My back deck: nails pop out, wooden planks loosen, the entire structure sways and rattles in a stiff wind. It’s about as safe and reliable as a Peruvian rope bridge.
The realtor climbed into his Range Rover and drove off, back to his plush real estate office with his fancy HVAC and his top-of-the-line level floors. I walked back up the stairs to my condo, noticing for the first time the frayed strands of fabric in the stairwell carpet, the missing balusters in the railing and the large black smudges on the unpainted walls.
I have friends who own three-bedroom houses in the suburbs. They take on annual projects, like repaving their driveways or building ice rinks in their backyards. I have friends who own turnkey lofts in up-and-coming areas like East Boston or Dorchester. They have brick walls, high ceilings and skyline views. I have wealthy friends whose parents buy them fully restored condos in exclusive Boston neighborhoods. “It’s an investment,” they tell me, which sounds a little better than “mom and dad bought me a house”. I know people who are meticulous about their homes, like this guy from work who spent a year searching for a rare kind of onyx for his kitchen backsplash. The materials and installation cost four thousand dollars. When he told me this I congratulated him and shook his hand, then went to my computer to look up what a backsplash was.
Sometimes I do not feel like I belong in the grownup world, that it’s a wave I have neither the wherewithal nor the gumption to ride. The funny thing is, I only feel this way when I measure myself in terms of property value or when I see the world not as a world, but as a marketplace. I get anxious when I compare myself to other people, especially when the other person is Restoration Hardware. A house is a person’s castle. A house is a wise investment. But a house is also a box, and no matter how much you put into it, it will never be filled. Before you know it, you find yourself inside the box, too.
* * * *
I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked to my living room window. There was a time when I could see the horizon, all the way to Medford, rooftops the size of Monopoly pieces. Now I see windows, two-bedroom apartments, kitchen islands, metal sculptures, handsome couples, houseplants, early morning yoga, a lot of empty space. The lives of young professionals. And beyond that I can see a sliver of the warehouse across the street, where, in eighteen months, another luxury complex will rise from the ashes. More windows, more lives, more designer dogs, more yoga, more space.
I set my coffee cup down, picked up my phone, and Googled the name of my local congressman.
It’s time for the little guy to start complaining, and take a piece of the American Dream.
I can recall four family vacations from my childhood, each accompanied by a distinct image: Orlando, 1982. Me, cowering inside the tramcar on the rickety Thunder Mountain, crying and pledging to never go on another roller coaster again. Los Angeles, 1985. Me, cowering inside the tramcar at Universal Studios while a mechanical shark raised itself out of the water, then slowly moved from side to side as though watering its front lawn. Dubuque, Iowa, 1986. Me, getting vertigo from the endless farmland, yet astounded that there was still a place where Coke was sold in tall glass bottles. Washington, D.C., 1987. Me, being dragged through the state house by my father, who insisted that we exercise the notion of “people’s government” and meet our congressman, a guy named Barney Frank.
Fear of travel is part of my DNA. Like my droopy eyes and thinning hair, it is a trait I inherited from my father. My mother is an incessant world traveler; she’s been to more countries than democracy itself. My father, on the other hand, has only been as far as Italy, as in the Sons of Italy—the fraternal lodge in Newton, where he spent the majority of his time, located half a mile from our house.
In the days leading up to a family vacation, my father would triple his face time at the Sons of Italy, as though it were a tanning salon where he could build a base before exposing himself to my mother’s ultraviolet rays. “Give me one more prosciut sandwich, Carmine,” my father would say, rubbing his hands together, his suitcase and plane tickets next to his barstool. “You think they got good prosciut where I’m going? Fugghedaboutit. All they got in Florida is sunshine and assholes.”
Travel made my father anxious. Constant family time made him irritable and claustrophobic. It’s not that he didn’t love us; he did, very much, so long as we came in small and infrequent doses, like raw oysters. My father viewed us as though we were a half hour television sitcom—he needed a commercial break every nine minutes to make a phone call or get another scoop of ice cream. In that sense, a family vacation was like a three-hour foreign film, more obligation than enjoyable retreat, depriving him of the basic pleasures that the Sons of Italy provided: cold cuts, neighborhood friends, scotch and college football.
As soon as we deplaned at our destination airport my father would begin his commentary. He had a preternatural talent for making normal things seem illogical and offensive. “Lookit the size of this airport. That’s what they spend their money on in LaLa Land? Big airports, so the movie stars can feel like big shots?” Even things with no downside at all wouldn’t stop him from griping: “Seventy-four degrees and not a cloud in the sky,” he’d say, shaking his head and snapping his chewing gum. “Only in Hollywood.”
Any inconvenience was blamed not just on the specific trip, but on the concept of vacation itself. If we missed an exit on the way to Sea World or got caught in a slow-moving line at Epcot my father would make a tsk sound and say, “Lookit this. See what happens when you leave home?” When the waiter at Denny’s brought my father sausage links instead of patties he shook his head and said, “Lookit this. I could have stayed in Newton, got the sausage links at Ihop and saved two grand.”
While my mother, sisters and I walked through theme parks and along promenades, drinking slushes and gawking at inflatable alligators, my father always lagged behind, reorganizing the bills in his money clip or nostalgically looking over his football betting cards, wondering what he was missing out on back home. When we lounged by the hotel pool he’d sneak off to the payphone to call the Sons of Italy and check on arbitrary things. “Dominic, it’s Pelly. Did Joey’s cousin come in to fix the bathroom tiles yet? Nah, I’m down Florida with my family. Fugghedaboutit.”
Thus, my father resented anything that existed outside of Newton, the town in which he grew up and spent most of his life. Driving through Orlando, on our way to some family restaurant, my dad would look out the window, chewing his toothpick and shaking his head at the desolate Art Deco landscape. “In Newton the neighborhoods are full. The schools are full. The churches are full. Look at this. The only way they can get people down here is to build a make-believe castle. And even then all they get is two dogs and a stray cat. Je-sus Christ.”
On our last day of vacation my father was more relaxed, almost jovial. The closer we got to our departing flight home, the brighter his demeanor. On the plane back to Boston he was unrecognizable, calm and patient with the flight crew and affable with the fellow passengers. “I must say, kids, that was our best vacay yet,” he said on the drive home from Logan. My sisters and I sat silently, afraid to respond, still traumatized from his outburst over the price of Coppertone at the Holiday Inn gift shop, just two days before.
“Wouldn’t you agree, dear?” he said. “I said this could be our best vacation yet.” My mother said nothing, just stared out the passenger-side window with her iron-jawed resolve, the same stoic look she used whenever I’d threaten to ride my bike onto the Mass Pike and kill myself because she wouldn’t buy me something.
Our trip officially ended when my father pulled his Oldsmobile Cutlass into our driveway to drop us off. “I’ll be back for supper,” he said, waving cheerfully as he backed out. We stood in the driveway with our suitcases, watching as his car disappeared up Langdon Street, back toward the Sons of Italy.
* * * *
My friends and colleagues spend months planning exotic trips to places like New Zealand or Japan or Argentina. They set aside money and count down the days. They submit vacation requests to their managers and then guard their allotted time as though it is a nest of newly hatched bluebirds. In some cases they visit doctors that administer a series of required shots. Then they endure dreadfully long flights. They document the trips on Instagram and Facebook: A sunset. A rope bridge. A selfie in front of the village pub. A bowl of plantains. I have seen these things before, but to my friends they might as well be moon rocks or dinosaur fossils.
When they return, I expect stories of spiritual awakenings, of some perspective gained, of a greater truth revealed to them by an indigenous tribe. Instead I hear of jetlag, lost luggage and dysentery. I expect their eyes to glow with some kind of deeper meaning. Instead they look weary and sad, resentful toward their jobs, depressed that they can’t spend the rest of their lives thatching palm fronds or shaving bamboo. My friend Bob took two overseas trips this year. The first was to Bali, the high point of which was a Sri Lankan Mud Crab dinner. The low point was his connecting flight there, when the plane encountered a surprise cyclone and had to emergency land on another island. The turbulence was so horrifying that passengers vomited into paper bags and knelt in the aisle in prayer. His second trip, a few months later, was to Costa Rica. The pinnacle of that trip was jet skiing, an activity I’m quite certain is available off the beaches of South Boston. The downside was malaria, from which he eventually recovered after a month of antibiotics.
To some, travel is the reason for being. The women I’ve met on OK Cupid and Tinder are fanatical about it. The word “travel” is either in the first sentence of their bios or atop their lists of “Six Things I Couldn’t Live Without”. Their main profile pic usually involves a yoga position and a South American country. When I told one date that I’d never left the States she told me we wouldn't be able to relate to one another. Another response was: “That’s awful”, and yet another was “fuck you” followed by pitying laughter. Apparently gainful employment means nothing to these people; if you don’t have a passport, you might as well have an outstanding warrant or an STD.
It is easier to lie about travel. When people ask if I have any “big summer vacation plans”, I draw inspiration from a recent movie or television show. I had just seen the documentary Blackfish when my sister, who constantly pesters me for being a homebody, told me I needed to get out of the snow and go someplace warm for a few days. “Actually,” I said, “I just booked a trip to the Pacific Northwest to kayak with killer whales. What are your plans?” When Rambo 4 was in heavy rotation on the Spike network, I told friends that I was heading to Burma over Memorial Day weekend to rescue an old college professor.
The truth is, I can’t even dream of a vacation. Planning a trip is like shopping for a bedroom set—I’m overwhelmed and indecisive and therefore choose whatever’s cheapest and closest to me. In 2002 I took my first adult vacation. I had no friends, so I asked Bubba, the line cook at my favorite diner, if he’d like to join me. He asked where we were going and I told him I didn’t know. He suggested Miami, that the party scene was world-renowned and since it was April the colleges would be on spring break and the place would be crawling with chicks. I told him that sounded great. My mind went to pool parties, salsa dancing and linen suits. Immediately I felt cultured, like a seasoned traveler. I felt like everyone else.
Since I didn’t own a home computer I used my iMac at work and bought a package deal on some travel website—four nights at a beachfront Hilton, round trip airfare for two, all for $1800. When I presented this to Bubba he said it sounded like a great deal, then asked if he could pay me his half some time in May, after he got his tax return. “Sure,” I told him. The trip was three weeks away. If I was frugal up until then and spent money only on the bare essentials—gas and food and cigarettes and drugs—then I’d still have…almost $400 in my checking account.
Just before takeoff Bubba told me this was the first time he’d been on an airplane. He fidgeted in his seat and breathed deeply. “Relax,” I told him. “There’s nothing to it.” That feeling of being a seasoned traveler came again. I leaned back in my seat and grinned.
“I bet this is your first time in North Carolina, huh?” I said in the Greensboro airport during our six-hour layover. Bubba nodded, extinguishing his cigarette in an ashtray. I drummed my knuckles on the table and looked around the smoking section. “Are you hungry?” I asked. “Wanna get some lunch?” Bubba nodded again and then pulled a small fold of cash from his pocket. His lips moved as he counted the money underneath the table. He put it back into his pocket.
“Actually I think I’m good. I’m gonna take another walk around the airport.”
Elated from our arrival at Miami International Airport, we decided to forgo the complimentary shuttle bus and splurge on a taxi to our hotel. After twenty-five minutes on route 1A I asked the driver if our hotel was in walking distance to the bars and clubs. “Walk? Uh…no. No sir. No walk,” he said in a Latino accent. “It very nice hotel, though. You like.”
“Great,” I said. I looked at the meter. The fare was forty dollars and we were still on the highway. I looked out the window. The sky was an endless canopy of gray.
Our hotel was one of several monolithic structures that loomed in a row above the shoreline. I paid the fifty-five dollar cab fare and we walked through the circular drive to the lobby. I looked beyond the hotel and saw the surf: it looked manic and unwelcoming. Scattered on the beach were empty lounge chairs, their umbrellas rippling violently in the wind, some even toppled over.
A family of five stood in front of us in line at the concierge desk. A small boy and girl tugged on their mother’s dress, the girl’s fingers jammed into her mouth as she eyed the pot leaf on Bubba’s tie-dyed tee shirt. The father held a third child against his shoulder, an infant who stared dumbly at me. I smiled at him. At first his expression did not change, then his lower lip stuck out and foamy saliva oozed down his chin, soaking into his dad’s shirt. The father either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
The concierge waved us toward the desk. He checked us in and handed us our key cards. “How far are we from South Beach?” I asked. “Is it a long walk?”
“It’s about eight miles,” he said. “But there’s a bus that departs every half hour. The station is right across the street.”
“That’s perfect,” I said, waving my hand at the concierge, as though I had just been told a personal masseuse was waiting in my suite.
Two hours later Bubba and I were heading down Collins Ave., toward South Beach, sharing a bus ride with a dozen elderly people. Their skin was so bronzed and soft they looked like Pakistani Cabbage Patch Dolls. Every other block the bus stopped to pick up a couple more seniors. The driver got out, took their canes and helped them up the doorway steps. “Oh, hello there,” the seniors said when they noticed us, pleasantly surprised, smiling at us for the duration of the ride, as though we were a delicatessen that would nourish their waning life force.
South Beach was an esplanade of supple bodies and Top 40 music. We got a table at an outdoor bar called The Clevelander. Next to the service bar was an empty stage. I saw visions of Carson Daly and heard the distant cheers of a thousand wet tee shirt contests. We ordered food. I had three bites of a chicken sandwich and half a Heineken when my Crohn’s Disease acted up—my abdomen constricted and my ribcage felt enflamed.
“The chicks here are amazing,” Bubba said, his eyes following a pack of coeds that walked past our table.
“I know,” I said, scanning the area for a men’s room and wondering how long I’d be able to hold my oncoming bowel movement. I shifted around in my seat.
“You okay, dude?”
“Yeah, it’s just…these clothes…they itch like hell.” This wasn’t a lie. I wore an outfit I had purchased a few years prior in Hollywood on Melrose Ave: black stretch polyester clubbing pants and a matching button-down shirt. The pants were snug around my hips and flared out at the bottoms. The shirt was retro 70s style, slim fit with a big collar. Everyone else in The Clevelander wore fraternity tee shirts and cargo shorts, and I looked like I just walked off the set of Scarface. The idea of peeling the pants off in order to shit in a public bathroom sent chills through my body.
Later, we sat on a bench on Ocean Drive and people-watched. I asked Bubba what he felt like doing and he furtively counted his money again. My stomach pain resurfaced. A group of teenagers walked up to Bubba and asked him for a light. They wore baggy clothes and Rastafarian beanies. Bubba asked if they had any weed. They said no and instead handed him a purple flyer with the word “HELL” printed across the top. It was a rave in some warehouse in downtown Miami. “What do you think?” Bubba asked me after the teenagers walked off.
“I don’t know. My stomach’s bothering me. I think I’ll go back to the hotel and lie down. But you should go, if you want.”
I told him absolutely, go ahead and have fun, and if possible score some drugs. Preferably weed, but I’d accept anything.
* * * *
I woke up at nine the next morning. Bubba was by the window, smoking a cigarette. His bed was still made. “I saved you some coke,” he said, nodding to the bedside table. There was a small twist of Cellophane on it. I unwrapped it and tapped it out onto the glass table guard. A couple small chunks of a clay-like substance came out. It looked more like pocket lint than cocaine.
“You might have to let it dry out a little,” he said. “I didn’t realize the bag was in my hand while I was dancing. It’s probably a little damp.”
The coke was too malleable to cut up with my ATM card. I aimed the room’s complimentary hair dryer over it while Bubba recounted his night: a symphony of glow sticks, industrial music, mescaline, hard liquor, Red Bull, cocaine and, for the climax, a police raid. But no sex. Not even a courtesy grope. “It was a dumb idea,” he said in summary.
“Why? Sounds good to me,” I yelled over the hair dryer, waiting for the cocaine to granulate.
“I spent too much money. I only have forty bucks left to my name.”
I shut off the hair dryer.
Forty bucks. With three more days of vacation.
I tore off a piece of hotel stationary, rolled it up and tried to snort a line of cocaine that had the same shape and consistency as those little balls of pasta my mother put in her chicken soup. They made it into the straw but got stuck, so I unrolled the paper, picked them out and wedged them in my nose, one ball per nostril. “I’m going to the beach,” I said, nasally, and then stormed out of the room.
I was pissed. I sat in a lounge chair on the empty beach, wrapped myself in a towel and waited for Bubba to come out and apologize, though for what, I wasn’t entirely sure. After forty minutes the sky had clouded over and the wind whipped sand in my face. Since my nostrils were clogged with balls of rubbery cocaine I had to breathe through my mouth, causing my lips to crack and blister.
Sulking got me nowhere. It was time to cast my resentment aside and make the best of the situation. So there would be no linen suits, no cigarette boats to Cuba, no rooftop mojitos. So what? Vacations take their own shape, they have their own current, and it’s best to drift along with it, see where it takes you, rather than hold on to the banks of some agenda. Maybe there was a greater meaning here, a lesson on the value of companionship, of friendship. Maybe there was more to Bubba than the short order cook I occasionally got high with in the alley behind the diner. Maybe I would learn more about him, and in turn learn more about myself, and in turn learn more about life in general.
I shook the sand out from my clothes and hair and walked back to the hotel.
The room was dark when I returned, the heavy curtain drawn over the window. I turned on a lamp. Bubba lay facedown and motionless on his bed. I called his name. I poked his shoulder. He grunted something, then turned his head away from me and kept sleeping.
I watched a movie on TV. Then another. Then I went down to the hotel restaurant and got a sandwich. When I came back, Bubba was still asleep. I watched four episodes of Monk on USA Network. I took a nap, woke up, got a cup of coffee and went for a walk on the beach, just as a heavy rainstorm passed through. Back at the hotel room I changed into dry clothes and tried to wake Bubba again. Nothing. I drew the curtain back, flooding the room with light. Bubba moaned and mumbled something, then pulled the blanket over his head. I left the curtain open. An hour later, the sun went down and the room was dark again.
At 10:30, halfway into an episode of Law & Order, my eyelids got heavy. I drifted into sleep to the smell of cigarette smoke. My last conscious image was Bubba, sitting by the window, smoking.
I didn’t see him again until five o’clock the following day. When I asked where he’d been he told me he took a “long walk”, then he promptly got into his bed and took a nap.
That night Bubba and I took the bus to Little Havana. We didn’t say much to each other, just strolled around the neighborhood. I asked if he was hungry and he shrugged. “I only have six bucks, dude.”
“Don’t worry, bro. It’s on me,” I said. We walked past the restaurants and food trucks and stopped in a bodega, where I shelled out nine dollars for a loaf of bread and a pound of Cuban bologna. I slapped his shoulder. “I got your bus fare back to the hotel, too,” I said.
I still had two hundred dollars in my checking account. I could have loaned Bubba some money or at least sprung for a nice meal and a couple cocktails before our trip ended. But that would have been forcing it.
For the next day and a half we stayed in the hotel, taking naps, eating bologna sandwiches and watching television. We bonded over The Shawshank Redemption and Seinfeld reruns. Occasionally one of us would fall into a transient depression and stare off into a corner of the room for twenty minutes. Then Jerry would say something funny, or Morgan Freeman would impart some wisdom, and we’d snap out of it and say, “Man, that’s some true shit. I’m gonna have another bologna sandwich.”
I may not have gained any perspective or insight from the trip, but I did accrue a small measure of appreciation for my studio apartment. It seemed fresher. I had left both windows open before I left for Miami, and as a result the stench of cigarette ash and stale bong water had aired out. My bed was made and the floor wasn’t covered in boxer shorts. The temperature inside was chilly and crisp but it felt good, like an early New England morning. I enjoyed it for a moment and then went to close the window. Outside a robin was perched on an elm tree branch, looking back at me. Spring was coming. It was good to be home. And that’s something.
Dear Readers: The Greater Fool will be off for the rest of August. Enjoy the rest of your summers. We'll talk again in September.
The Greater Fool
When I tell people I work in advertising, the most common response is, “Oh, like Mad Men?” Yes, I tell them. Exactly like Mad Men. I get a similar reaction when I tell people my father was in the mafia. “Like Goodfellas?” they say, or “Like The Sopranos?” I’ve had numerous conversations—all of us have—where the most readily available access point is television or movies. Even historical events are more impactful with a cinematic gauge. For instance: “D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane in the early 70s, then parachuted out, mid-flight, with all the cash. Just like the ex-presidents in Point Break.”
Life makes more sense to me after its been embalmed and dressed up by screenwriters and makeup artists. When I hear of a shark attack in Cape Cod I wonder if the mayor and the police chief are at odds about closing the beaches. When an American is held hostage in the middle east, it frustrates me that the president never deploys a squadron of 1980s action heroes on a search-and-rescue mission. Make-believe is simply more palatable than the real thing. Maybe that’s why I initially chose to pursue a career in movies. And maybe—most likely, actually—that’s why my movie career was a meteoric failure. Making movies, as I discovered firsthand, is not as cinematic as it seems in the movies.
Now I work in advertising, a field I chose based on simple logic: TV commercials are like movies, only much, much shorter. Therefore I can enjoy a similar kind of creativity with only a fraction of the effort. That logic proved false. I spent all of Thursday writing billboard copy for the Tallahassee Bureau of Tourism. Nine hours racking my brain for a cute and clever headline to accompany a cartoon of four alligators on a water slide.
Lately my job has consumed much of my time, so it seemed appropriate to look back on where it all began: my first day in this business, when I was greener than major league grass, before I realized there was more to advertising than presenting illustrated concepts to a conference room full of suits, like the opening scene of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1999, after I returned to Boston from an eighteen-month tour of duty in Los Angeles (read Easy, Massachusetts... for more on that). I was living at home with my parents, waiting tables at night, partying until sunrise and searching the Boston Globe’s Help Wanted page every day in search of a new career, someplace that would hire a 24-year old with a year and a half of experience and a portfolio of college newspaper film reviews. Every day I would scan past listings for jobs I had never heard of, vague and ominous positions like underwriter or controller or estimator. I saw lots of openings for pharmaceutical sales, auditors, restaurant managers, analysts, machinists, even drivers, but nothing for “Entry Level Ad Agency”. Then finally there it was, tucked away at the bottom of the generic PROFESSIONAL section. In bold lettering. Calling out to me.
CHAMPIONSHIP ADVERTISING, a sports marketing firm, is looking for ambitious, motivated self-starters to join our team. Exciting opportunities! Earn up to $1,000/wk! Applicants will be screened by phone. Call 781-XXX-XXXX.
Sports marketing? I saw myself standing behind a camera yelling “cut!” while Pedro Martinez held up a stick of Right Guard deodorant. I called the number immediately and left a message with Angela, the receptionist. Two hours later, while I was in the backyard smoking a joint, dressed in my Terrycloth robe, the phone rang. I ran inside and answered. A woman introduced herself as Susan Bowen from Championship Advertising. She sounded husky but purposeful, as though her Boston accent was girded with nude-colored pantyhose and caked with Maybelline foundation. I imagined the Route One version of Mary Tyler Moore.
First she asked about my experience as a producer’s assistant in Los Angeles. Then she asked if I had a car. Then she asked how soon I could start. I told her I could start right away. “Okay,” she said. “I just have one more question.” It sounded like she was shuffling papers, looking for something. “Oh. Right. How would you describe yourself in one word?”
“Hm,” I said, rubbing my lips, my fingertips smelling like cheap marijuana resin. “I guess…in one word…I’d have to say…um…” I had no idea what to say. What would she want to hear? I scratched my head and looked over at the mirror in my mother’s living room. There I was, at four in the afternoon, unshowered, wearing a robe and boxer shorts, tufts of bedhead sticking out like a missile silo, my eyes watery and bloodshot.
“In one word…I’d say I’m ambitious. Yeah, ambitious. Or maybe smart. No, ambitious.”
“Well congratulations. Why don’t you come in tomorrow at nine, and we’ll see how you do in the field?”
“Do I have the job?”
“Looks good so far. Come in tomorrow, meet some of our staff, sit in on a couple meetings, and we’ll take it from there.”
She gave me the address to the home office in Woburn, along with directions from I-95 (in the time before Google Maps, people often gave directions). I thanked her, hung up the phone and fist-pumped my reflection in the mirror. Then I realized I forgot to ask about health insurance, which I need due to my chronic bowel disease. I also forgot to ask about starting salary. And vacation time. And what exactly the job entailed.
No matter. I’ll find out tomorrow.
Since I didn’t have any close friends in the area (by “area” I mean the United States), I celebrated alone that night, at Golden Star, the Chinese restaurant in Newtonville. There were always one or two regulars there I could saddle up next to and chew the fat with. And of course Huey, the skinny Asian bartender with the fu manchu who looked like a Gremlin salesman. Sitting at the bar that night was Roy Carbone, a city worker I knew from the neighborhood. In front of him were two packs of Marlboro Reds, five Keno tickets and a bottle of Bud Light. The beer bottle’s label was peeled off and torn into a pile of tiny shreds that sat next to his ashtray. “Hey guy,” I said, slapping Roy’s back and sitting on the stool next to him.
He turned slowly to me, squinting through a plume of cigarette smoke with eyes that were set far back in his square head. “Do I know you?”
“It’s Danny. Pellegrini. I used to work at the restaurant next door.” I had hung out with Roy about sixty times over the past three years. What I should have said was “we snorted a gram of coke in the alley behind Pizzeria Uno last Sunday”, but I thought that might have been too forward.
“Oh yeah,” Roy said. He reached out to shake my hand. His fingers were thick and shaky, like four Jimmy Dean sausages on a frying pan, popping in their own grease.
“How we doin’ pal? You alright?” I said. He didn’t answer. Instead he took his last cigarette from one of the packs and brought it slowly to his mouth, lighting it with a trembling match. Once it was lit he started tearing apart the empty pack, ripping off a paperboard panel, tearing it in half, then in quarters, and so on, until finally there was a pile of red and white shards next to the shredded Bud Light label.
I pulled out seventy-three bucks—my entire nest egg—and set it on the bar. Then a flash of prudency hit me and I tucked a twenty back into my pocket, just in case. I bought Roy another beer and ordered myself a Dewar’s—a taste I had acquired from my father’s liquor cabinet. Huey dropped off the drinks with a nod.
“I got a new job today,” I told Roy. “Advertising.”
Roy exhaled smoke across the bar. He swallowed forcibly for a moment, as though fighting the urge to vomit all over me. “You want a job? Go up Church Street, up the fire station. Go see Dicky Iacuzzo, ya know, Joanie’s father. Tell him I sent ya, tell him you wanna take the firefighter exam. He’ll take care a yas.”
I nodded and tapped my finger on the rim of my rocks glass. “That’s an idea,” I said.
Roy went on, mumbling about how he was going to kill someone named Tommy. I drank my glass of Dewar’s and watched the Red Sox game on the TV above the bar, thinking about my new career in sports marketing.
Roy and I were the last ones to leave Golden Star that night, at a few minutes past one AM. I had drunk six Dewar’s and bought three of Roy’s beers. We also split an order of Teriyaki chicken and Peking dumplings. I spent all of my money, even the emergency twenty I was saving for gas.
I threw up twice on the walk home. When I finally got to my parents’ house I laid down in the front yard, smoked a cigarette and stared up at the moon. And that’s where I woke up, four hours later, to the smack of the Boston Globe landing on the front walkway, right next to my head.
* * * *
The traffic on 95 was slow moving. My head felt like it was in a vise grip. I was queasy and on the verge of heaving, as though my stomach was an oil drum, sliding around the back of a van, filled with watery refuse that spilled over the rim at every bump in the road. With every gag reflex came the burn of cheap scotch and the taste of Chinese mystery meat. Even with the air conditioning on full blast, I was brined in sweat. My neck was slimy underneath my shirt collar, my armpits and tailbone were damp, my ass crack felt like it was leaking. Droplets of melted hair gel trickled down my forehead and stung my eyes.
The hangover would wear off soon; the glory of a career in advertising, however, was infinite.
According to the site map in the office park’s lobby, Championship Advertising was located in suite 3C. Suite 3B was Frigotelli European Tours, and 3D was Dr. Arne Silver, PHD, child psychologist. The names of the neighboring businesses were stenciled in raised gold leaf lettering; Championship Advertising was written in black Sharpie on a piece of white paper that was taped over the previous occupant. A wave of nausea came over me. I rested my hand on the site map and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I arrived at suite 3C, my shirt sticking to my torso after walking up two flights of stairs thanks to an elevator that was OUT OF SERVICE. The smell of Golden Star’s barroom—a mixture of carpet mold and cigarette ash—seeped from my pores. The door to the psychologist’s office opened and into the hallway came a young mother and son. The boy was sobbing, his head hung. His mother held onto his shoulder and gently stroked his hair. I glanced at her as she passed by, and saw that she was crying, too.
A swell of diarrhea rose up from the pit of my stomach and then quieted. I knocked and walked in to the offices of Championship Advertising.
The reception area was the size of your standard tollbooth. I introducing myself and was told to wait in Susan Bowen’s office at the end of the hall. On the way I passed by a half dozen cubicles and saw two men and four women, all in their twenties, all gaunt and ratty-looking. They stared back at me but said nothing, as if a small part of their brains said “help us” while a much larger part said “indoctrination”. I arrived at an office with SUSAN BOWEN on the door, written in Sharpie and scotch-taped over a placard that read STORAGE.
A moment later Susan walked in with a young woman in tow. “Hi, Danny. Susan Bowen. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands. There was a rip in her pantyhose and a lipstick stain on one of her front teeth. The smell of makeup and polyester was so pungent I almost gagged. She gestured to the young woman behind her. “This is Kate. You’ll be shadowing her in the field today.”
Kate and I shook hands. She was roughly my age but dressed like she was in her seventies, with a double-knit blouse, knee-length skirt and boxy high heels that were a size too small, making the tops of her feet look like loaves of bread rising out from two baking tins. She had puffy, chipmunk cheeks that were spotted with constellations of acne. It looked as though she had just ate 100 mg of prednisone for breakfast. My stomach churned, the gastric juices tickling the back of my throat.
“What exactly will we be doing today?” I said. And then, as an after thought: “In the field.”
“Well, Danny, Championship Advertising is a direct marketing firm. We present local businesses with the opportunity to connect with and support some of our hometown professional sports teams, and in doing so gain awareness on a much broader level. For instance: last month PepsiCo hired us to promote a sweepstakes among local real estate offices. The winner got a one month free billboard on one of the Fleet Center’s loge sections.”
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds exciting.” It did. Sort of.
Susan continued. “Today, of course, you and Kate will be working on a different initiative, but you get the picture.” She turned to Kate and nodded. “All set?”
Kate nodded, and the two of us were off, into the field.
* * * *
“Do you mind if I turn this down just a bit?” Without waiting for an answer I reached over and lowered the volume on Jammin 94.5. “It’s a little early for Brittney Spears.”
“Sorry,” Kate said. We inched along 95 in her Honda Civic. “And sorry about the air conditioning. I’m gonna fix it once I get the hundred and forty bucks.”
I nodded and leaned my head against the passenger side window. The glass was hot against my temple. I felt faint. The edges of my vision blurred.
“What’s that smell?” I said.
She sniffed the air. “It could be exhaust. There’s a hole in the floorboard. I need to fix that, too.”
It definitely wasn’t the exhaust. Something smelled sour, like spoiled milk. I looked toward the back seat and saw a menagerie of empty McDonald’s containers. One of them had the crust of a cheeseburger still inside it.
My mouth filled with saliva. I rolled the window down and leaned my head out. Kate asked me to roll it back up—apparently the sounds of the highway distracted her.
“So, where are we going?” I said, trying to be cheerful.
I waited for Kate to say more but instead she picked her nose and flicked away the debris.
“What are we doing in Billerica?”
She pointed at a three-ring binder wedged between the two front seats. I picked it up and opened it in my lap. Inside were sheets of pre-cut coupons, clipped together in packets. I flipped through one of them. The copy and images and limited-time-only deals whirled past my eyes, but two things stood out:
Subway and Domino’s Pizza.
“What is this?” I said, unable to hide my shock and horror.
“This week I’m meeting with businesses to discuss enhanced value lunch opportunities.” She nodded toward the binder. “For $19.99 a month they get premium access to Subway and Domino’s Pizza’s benefits program.”
I opened the packet again and examined one of the coupons: One large, thick crust pizza with any choice of topping, two large sodas and a bag of Lay’s potato chips. All for four dollars.
“There’s seven hundred and ninety dollars’ worth of food in there. We’re selling it for two hundred and forty. We’re giving these businesses over five hundred dollars.”
I was speechless. Kate interpreted it as awe.
She went on. “I know what you’re thinking. Commission, right? What’s our end? Six percent. Well, I get six percent. But you will too, once you’ve completed your training and built your own client list.” She turned to me and smiled with a sinister overbite.
Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I looked out the window. We had gotten off the interstate a few minutes before and were now on a rural highway, in a remote area, far away from anything.
* * * *
The main commercial street of Billerica looked like a quaint Cape Cod neighborhood after a nuclear holocaust. The sidewalks were sorrowful strips of dying grass. The businesses looked like residences: one-story, flat-roofed houses set back from the road, their windows barred and front yards overgrown with weeds. The late-morning heat approached ninety degrees, causing the air to hover in waves and turning the horizon a sickly pink, the color of a faded scab.
Kate and I walked along the sidewalk of dead grass. She eyed the offices for prospective sales while I struggled to stay conscious. I was dehydrated. My clothes stuck to me, especially my boxer shorts, which were crammed into my butt crack like a sumo belt, chafing my scrotum. I walked peg-legged in an effort to minimize the pain.
“Let’s try this place,” Kate said, pointing at one of the shitholes on our side of the street. We turned up the front walk.
“Can I ask you something?” I said. “What does any of this have to do with sports?”
She sighed, opened up her binder and held it in my face. I looked at the top sheet of coupons. Printed underneath the Subway logo was: “The Official Sandwich of the Boston Red Sox.”
“Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, my right hand unconsciously forming into a fist.
“Okay then.” We reached the door. Kate rang the doorbell and we entered into the foyer of Russian Dental Associates. A woman with a surgical mask around her neck quickly approached us looking alarmed. “Is everything okay?” she asked in a thick Russian accent.
She seemed relieved once Kate explained our business there. I half listened as Kate fumbled through her sales pitch, repeatedly referring to the binder, gushing about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a yearlong membership to a fast food chain. From my other ear I heard fax machine transmissions, drilling, and some screaming.
“Ma’am, as a premium member you not only get great deals on all Domino’s Pizza and Subway products, you also get all food made to order. Like, if you want extra cheese, or extra mayo, all you have to do is call this toll-free number and create a…hold on…” Kate flipped through a few pages in her binder. “…a custom profile.”
I felt like crying. The woman shook her head. “No thank you. No. We not interested.”
Kate held up a finger. “Also there’s a cookie of the month club…”
“No. Please. I don’t have time for this. Please leave now.”
Kate nodded, thanked the woman, and we left. Outside, on the front walk, she was resilient. “Okay,” she said, clutching the binder against her chest like a schoolgirl, marching upright. “It’s okay. One down, forty-nine to go.”
I dropped my head in my hands.
Next up was an animal hospital. Before we turned onto the front walk a pickup truck drove by. A half dozen guys, shirtless and sunburned and drinking cans of beer, were packed into the back. They honked and whistled and shouted at Kate.
“Yeah, sweet ass! Wanna jump in the truck with us?”
I looked at Kate. Her hair was frizzed out from the humidity and trails of sweat streaked down her face, navigating through the zit patches on her cheeks. “I’m used to it,” she said. “I just ignore it.” She marched up to the animal hospital’s front door.
As soon as we walked through the door my stomach turned over and leapt into my throat. The hospital was one dingy room filled with cages. The stench of raw animal assaulted me; I had never smelled anything like it. Animal food, animal feces, animal entrails, animal cadavers…all mixed together to form a potpourri of infirmed wildlife. A man in a white smock came out from behind a row of cages, adamantly shaking his head. “No. No. You were here two days ago. Please…”
That was all I heard. Before Kate could respond with her irrefutable sales pitch, I was outside, in the front yard, vomiting.
Two down, forty-eight to go.
“I might be coming down with something,” I told her on the way to our next stop, a pawnshop called Billerica Buy & Sell. “I’m gonna hang out here for this one, get some air.”
“Okay,” Kate said. She looked confused for a moment, then promptly turned on her heels and marched toward the pawnshop, determined to close the deal.
I walked to the corner and leaned against a mailbox. The noon sun drilled into me. I peeled off my sport jacket and undid my necktie. My shirt was soaked. For a second I thought I would die right there, in Billerica, on a Wednesday afternoon.
Three black men in a ’64 Chevy Impala convertible pulled up at the intersection. The driver was a muscular man with a doo rag and sunglasses. He turned to me. I nodded hello. He smiled.
“You are one pathetic motherfuckin’ white man,” he said. “You have yourself a lovely day now.” The Impala drove off.
A few minutes later Kate walked out of the pawnshop. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Not interested,” she said. “Oh well. You wanna grab some lunch?”
“Where are we gonna get lunch around here?” I said, monotone.
She shrugged. “McDonald’s?”
I convinced Kate to drive me back to the Championship Advertising headquarters. She was weary, citing the mid-day traffic as a potential hazard. I assured her there would be no traffic in that direction at this time of day. I was wrong. Construction had closed down two lanes and it took us an hour and forty minutes to get back to Woburn. With the return traffic, she wouldn’t get back to Billerica until close to 4:00. I apologized for the inconvenience and wished her luck, then slammed the door shut. She drove away, the tailpipe of her shitbox Honda Civic scraping the pavement behind her.
* * * *
Today I’m sitting in an air-conditioned office, in a dark, private editing suite, with no manager breathing down my neck and no weekly quota to meet. I call composers and tell them I need a music track, something “uplifting and approachable, but still unique and with a bit of an edge.” I make videos that depict a world where everybody smiles, where they show product in motion, where their flaws are retouched and where they casually share the frame with glaring brand logos. I write copy about people who feel great and look slim. I help sell the tools that will equip you with living the happiest, most fulfilling life you could ever imagine.
Is it like Mad Men? Not exactly, but it’s not terribly different, either. And that’s not the point, anyway. Make-believe is not a gauge for reality. I need to remind myself of that whenever I get frustrated and existential at work, those times when I regret leaving the movie business, or the disappointment I feel when I argue with a co-worker and our banter lacks the machine-gun tempo of All The President’s Men. The best we can hope for in this life is happiness. And the only gauge for happiness, like it or not, is misery.
So if you ever find yourself stranded in Billerica on a sweltering July day with no hope and no quarter, think of it as an investment.
The Greater Fool
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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