Friday, June 30, 2006

Music Criticism

The past few years, I’ve really let my music criticism chops falter, for a few reasons. I think the main one was simply that I’d rather enjoy music than try to dissect it or, in most cases, serve as a public-relations person championing a new, unknown artist. Ultimately, the freelance pay for doing reviews or articles is dogshit, takes weeks or months to show up, and you have to be a real hustler, or working as an editor at a publication, to make it pay off.

Plus, the more I did it, the more strange the field seemed. JS, the editor at my old paper, would occasionally give me crap for not badgering record companies to get free stuff. I’d mention in an email that I heard such-and-such an album was coming out in a month, he’d say why don’t you review it, I said sure, I’ll pick it up when it comes out, and he’d say cut the crap, call the record company now and get a free copy so your review can appear the week it comes out.

And I hated doing shit like that. One, I can’t stand asking people for free shit – especially record companies. The people working in PR there are desperate to make contact with music critics, simply to get the word out on their artists, and they foster an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationship. It just feels clammy.

Two, I can recall back at the college newspaper the big stink that was made over ethics. We had it drilled into our head that accepting any sort of gift as a journalist was unethical. Yet, when it came to CDs, live performances and such, the expectation was that a music critic should be given everything for free – so he could do his job. This has always been a fucked-up scenario to me. These are gifts. They’re free. Music critics get in the habit of calling record companies to get free shit. Sometimes they’ll review it, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll trash it. And then the PR person would get pissed. Maybe some suit at the company would get pissed, too, and threaten to pull valuable ad dollars from said publication.

It’s just a clammy process, and the critic learns to expect free shit, even if he’s not reviewing it. It becomes a badge of honor with friends who have to pay for everything. The record companies are often bombarding publications with free shit to begin with, much less requested items. In my mind, you can’t be impartial when you’re receiving gifts, and forget about the lame excuse that the writer needs the gift to do his job. I could understand if record companies had some sort of reviewer’s discount, but it would take awhile to get publications to pay for this, as they’re always crying poverty.

On top of that, it occurred to me after awhile that I didn’t like most of the music critics I was meeting. It wasn’t even the stereotype. David Lee Roth made the famous quote back in Van Halen’s hey day that most music critics like Elvis Costello because they look like Elvis Costello. Granted, there is a nerdy component to grown men and women being obsessed with music, which has become a teenage hallmark in our upside-down culture, one that most people abandon as they age.

You’ll find geeks in every walk of life. What bothered me more about music critics was the general demeanor: far-left leaning, sort of obnoxious and often mean-spirited as hell. The kind of people who abhor physical violence (and are in no danger of ever inflicting it on anyone else, believe me), but surely have dibbs on the often as-damaging mental and emotional variety. In short, the kind of guys you’d smack for being assholes, and they’d then call you a nazi for doing so (from a very great distance). Every now and then, I’d meet a sane music critic – some guy who simply loved music and was as well-adjusted as any other adult. But far more often than not, it would be a permanent 19-year-old, someone stuck in that always angry, fuck-the-adult-world-mine-is-better mode. Basically, grown men and women still hung up on the concept of cool, although they never were. Thus … you get these VH-1 specials repositioning the 70s as a decade of non-selling acts like the New York Dolls, Television and Wire, when the reality was Captain & Tennille, the Bee Gees and Bread. In essence, history is being written by the losers to reflect their better sense of musical taste.

It bothered me that my role was to critique something as opposed to creating it. I simply wasn’t a talented musician, and that’s something I’ve highly respected from the first record I bought to the thousands of CDs I now own. (I stopped counting at 3,000, but then again, I also started weeding out a ton of stuff around then, too, so I’ve lost count, and now with MP3s, who knows how much music I have.) I don’t think this expressed itself as bitterness so much as envy. It occurred to me somewhere along the line that via criticism, I hoped to elevate myself to some level in the music industry where I would be somehow viewed as necessary and nearly as important as musicians. When the reality was the only people who gave a shit were those picking up the magazine or reading the music section of a paper.

And I’d get wake-up calls every time I reviewed a show, again, with comp tickets, which would make me feel guilty if I didn’t like the show. It was customary for door people and club owners to be assholes about the comp seats or tickets. The worst I recall is a guy at the Bottom Line, who barked, “Who the fuck are you?” in my face when my name didn’t appear to be on the guest list. My instinct was to head butt this little hipster terd for his lack of manners, but luckily the promoter was right there, knew me and let me in. I could understand if I’d been rude to the guy, but I basically just said my name’s on the list, it wasn’t, and that’s when he proferred this witty quip. Nobody likes answering to rotten pricks like that – you do it all the time with guest lists, which are faulty as hell.

If the pay was better, if music critics were a little higher on the journalistic food chain (as opposed to the lower rungs), I might pursue it. But it felt like a drag after awhile, a bad hustle with little pay-off. I’d rather just love music than try to be another of the many people in the music industry who make money off it, but aren’t actual musicians.

On top of which … most of the musicians I met were total assholes! Basically worthless when they weren’t performing, egotistical beyond belief, often living in a small cocoon formed around their band and totally enmeshed in that strange little world that floats around performers. The best way to demonstrate this is to go see a band at a club or arena and try to get backstage. If you do, you’ll find the musicians performing being treated and acting like little gods. It’s not so much their fault as the countless people around them who create this aura of false importance. While I recognize it is important for an artist to be ready to perform onstage for paying fans, I also ask myself, how is this different from any other job? When you get ready to go to work in the morning, do thousands of people chant your name? A bunch of teenage girls offer to suck your cock? A gaggle of hangers-on beam at you as if you were baby Jesus handing out $100 bills?

I’d wager not. And for all I know, you might be trying to find a cure for cancer, or a garbage man. Or a rock star. Why should it matter in terms of importance? A job is a job. And the entertainment industry wraps itself in a cloak of false importance, when all that’s going on is entertainment being provided to people in their leisure time.

Once, a long time ago, I went to see The Replacements play in Pittsburgh. My friends and I drove down from State College, PA and got there very early, late afternoon for a 9:00 show. We parked near the club, and as we got out the car and walked by the back door, we saw Paul Westerberg sitting there, sunning himself and having a smoke. My friends averted their eyes – oh my god, we’re here to see him, and we're too cool to acknowledge this, look away, look away!

I stopped, said “Paul Westerberg! We’re here to see you play tonight!” And proceeded to get into a very pleasant conversation between well-versed fans and artist. I had forgotten my drivers license (I was just over 21 at the time), which I realized about halfway to Pittsburgh, and told Paul as much. He said, buddy, if they give you a problem getting in the club, come back in and knock on the door, I’ll get you in. We thanked each other and went our merry way – luckily, I got in that night without my ID. We went back to the car after the show, passing the back door, and all The Replacements were hanging out there, surrounded by sleazy whores, slobbering drunks and dislocated indie kids, all kinds of folk. Paul Westerberg sees me, pops up from his temporary girlfriend, sand says, “Hey, man, did you get in?”

And that whole scenario said it all to me – Westerberg got it. And I got it that afternoon, when I saw that this was just some guy lounging on some steps who would later play songs for people, me being one of them, and I’m glad I got the chance to thank him for doing this without all the hoopla. I like that symbiotic, very real relationship between artist and fan, and if I was smarter, I would have left it like that instead of trying to gain personal and professional respect from it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Various Mind Games

I’ve been noting some odd tidbits in the past few days. It makes more sense to do a Readers Digest style collection of short quips.


I think I’ve landed upon the fundamental difference between conservatives and liberals. Or at least I’ve noticed left-leaning folk on the web consistently hitting on this point in their criticism of the right. And that is: conservatives don’t care what anyone else thinks about them, and liberals do. I’m not quite sure what the criticism implies, although I gather this is a bad thing. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty good idea not to be overly concerned with other people’s opinions about you, whatever your political persuasion. There rarely is any sort of valid consensus, and it’s often people who, for whatever reason, just don’t like you and never will. Doesn’t make you right or wrong, or them right or wrong.

This is how kids are, not adults – seeking validation in the eyes of others, or believing your opinion is the moral axis around which the world must spin. It just seems like another of those ersatz value systems the left is trying to foist on all of us. If I think your opinion of me is invalid that makes me arrogant? No, it makes me an adult, who knows there’s a ton of shit you’re not seeing about me, who doesn’t feel any burning need to win you over or judge you in any sense, who understands that your value system might be fucked, and most importantly, who hopes my opinion of you is viewed as equally irrelevant. It’s far beyond a liberal/conservative thing. I’m advocating not just the refusal, but the negation of a faulty judgment system, whether it’s yours or mine.

And I think the more people on the left grasp this concept, the better chance they’ll have of regaining political power in America. As it stands now, every time I see someone on the left dropping this bon mot as if it were a damning accusation or universal truth, I do the “Loser” sign on my forehead with my index finger and thumb. These are people who don't grasp reality -- the right has issues, but this aint one of them.


More importantly, here’s a picture of Oscar Gamble. I can’t stop thinking about his afro, and the way it would balloon out from under his baseball hat. I wonder how he kept the hat on when he ran -- wouldn't the gigantic plume of hair under his hat simply cause it to fly off his head when he moved at a high rate of speed? He had to be the coolest-looking baseball player ever. (I tried to get him in his classic Yankees hat – I’ll always remember him as a Yankee, even though he was a Phillie for a very short while – but this Cleveland Indians image is much less fuzzy, photo-quality wise as opposed to hair. You should be hearing "Rock Your Baby" by George McCrae playing in your head right now.)


Speaking of cool looks, I think I’ve finally focused on the uncoolest look a guy can have, or at least a white guy: the “goatee with shaved head” look. A coworker recently gave birth to a daughter that she had with a guy who, while not a one-night stand, was someone whom she wishes was just that. They were dating for two months, she got knocked up, decided to have the kid, and found this asshole permanently attached to her life. It takes two to tango, but he sounds like a real piece of work, the usual things errant grown men are: clueless, nuts and childish.

Another coworker forwarded jpeg pictures of the happy mother and child this week, and even before seeing pictures of this guy, I said to myself, “I bet he has a shaved head and goatee.” Sure enough, he did. And that same quizzically stupid look these guys often sport, although they’re usually smart enough to hide this with wraparound shades. It's just one "tough guy" affectation stacked on top of another. Throw in a forearm tattoo – maybe the head of a snarling Doberman with the word “Badass” scribbled underneath – a pack-a-day habit, a drinking problem, and a prodigious belly, and this was him. Also add ownership of only two CDs: the greatest hits of George Thorogood and Bachman Turner Overdrive. Buh-buh-buh-bad to the bone!

What is it with beefy, balding white guys and the “goatee with shaved head” look? I’m not asking rhetorically. Why would a guy make himself this homely? I can understand the shaved head – a balding guy either wants to avoid the fact that he’s balding or hasn’t wrapped his mind around the concept of keeping his hair short on the sides, because every other look will just be weird. I’ll never understand the goatee, the silliest facial hair a man can have, sillier than mutton chops or an Amish beard, which at least have a certain novelty to them.

Put both of them together, and it’s insecurity overkill. If other guys are supposed to be intimidated – which seems to be the vibe a lot of these guys put out in the way they carry themselves – guess again. I’m automatically thinking, “Dude, you’re not fooling anybody.” I’m always suspect of any guy who tries to physically intimidate anyone, but to do so with a shaved head an bad facial hair seems like a strange route to take. (I may have noted this previously, but the only look that intimidates me is shaved head with an Amish beard.)

When I did a Google image search to find the perfect example of this look, nothing worthwhile came up, but ironically, the first entry was for an off-duty cop on a “Bears” dating website, looking for a new boyfriend. And I thought, “Well, that shoe fits a little more snugly than I anticipated …”


With World Cup soccer in full swing, and the games being shown on American TV late morning and mid-afternoon, I'm wondering which would be a worse-case scenario: the United States team really sucking or winning the whole thing. When the team sucks, as it did this time around, you get the usual stories: the U.S. is out of touch with the rest of the world, there's something wrong with us because soccer isn't one of our premier sports, we're isolated, etc. The usual meaningless shit. If the team won, I could already predict the spin: the U.S., with their my-dick-is-bigger-than-yours ethic, has to control everything, even football, why couldn't they leave this one thing for the rest of the world to have, bunch of bullies, they ruin everything, etc.

In short, whether we were to suck or dominate, the theme would be the same: anti-Americanism. I suspect with the influx of Central and South American immigrants, and the slow growth of high-school soccer programs all over America, it's only a matter of time (within a decade?) before the U.S. team gets good. In the U.S., there's much more of a financial impetus for our best young male athletes to go with baseball, basketball or football. Most countries in the world, how many big-money sports do you have competing with soccer? In most of them, none. Rugby? Cricket? Soccer would grow exponentially if deep-pocketed team owners invested in the U.S. league, brought in name players, scored lucrative TV network deals. Things don't seem to be happening on that level just yet. And most Americans simply don't care, which is no great tragedy. We're better off sucking for now.


I was wrong about Oscar Gamble being the coolest-looking baseball player ever. This guy is, and a Phillie to boot, although I don't remember him. Judging by the historical success rate of the Phillies pitching staff, he probably was legally blind.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The People Next Door

Astoria, probably much of Queens, is filled with row houses. I don’t like them. Forget about being fire hazards. Just the concept that real estate developers at a certain time were so cheap and money hungry that they came up with the idea of packing in houses one right next to each other with no breathing room. My landlord’s house is basically a row house by design, but luckily separated from the next house by a driveway, with a good-sized patio in the back, and the street on the other side.

She has an odd relationship with the people next door. I have no relationship with the people next door. I honestly don’t even know who lives there at any given time. Most of these houses, the owner lives on the first floor, and usually rents out the second floor and basement as apartments. The house next door, I have no idea who owns it, no idea who the second-floor tenants are, but unfortunately have had contact with the revolving door tenants in the basement apartment.

Like Saturday night for instance. I think the situation in that basement apartment now is a thirtysomething Hispanic woman living there, who has two girls who don’t live with her there (could be nieces, too, but visit occasionally on Saturday afternoons), and an asshole boyfriend who seems to spend a lot of time there. How do I know all this? I can hear them. Apparently, they don’t have A.C., and she tends to leave her alley-side windows (I’m assuming her only windows) open. (I keep my windows facing them shut.) Even more annoying, she seems to be a great fan of bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling in terms of tasteful lighting – bare light bulbs positioned right by the window, which put out way too much light, sometimes to the extent where I’ll put stray pillows in my windows on that side of the apartment to block it out.

She’s the kind of person who will blast senseless music for short 10-minute bursts, goes silent for two hours, then blasts the music again for 10 minutes – always some nondescript salsa or hard rock. (Why is it that people who blast music never, and I mean never, have any sort of developed musical taste? They’re either one trick ponies in terms of style or obviously own only one or two CDs.)

I can often hear her asshole boyfriend laughing. You can tell a lot about people by how they laugh. And this guy’s barking, coarse laughter says one thing: “I’m a fucking moron.” It’s obvious, as is his speaking voice. The guy’s just a zero, trash in any color, the kind of guy you meet too much of in the 718s. It’s odd in that sometimes her apartment will appear vacant for days, and other times, it seems like she and the asshole are camped out there nonstop for a week. I've gathered that she's a lot more peaceful when he's not around (but he's usually around). They also come and go at weird hours, sometimes numerous times in the course of night, which leads me to believe there could be some type of drug action going on, although that's pure conjecture. There have been a few times where I've heard him drunkenly stumbling through the alley with a friend.

I hadn’t realized how trashy things were until this past Saturday night when, in a driving rain, the woman had a screaming, throwing-shit match in the alley and in front of the house with her asshole boyfriend. It was like something out of COPS. I don’t even know what it was about. The net result was her screaming the usual stuff an angry woman screams: get the fuck out of my life, you creep, fuck you, you’re a piece of shit, etc. He didn’t say much of anything, as I think he was too busy dodging small pieces of furniture and full beer cans being hurled at him. Someone did call the cops – I pretty much just sat in my apartment laughing, and hoping this episode would serve as some impetus for whoever owns that building to kick her out.

It was quiet Sunday, various broken household items and full cans of Old Milwaukee still in front of the house, so who knows what the fallout of that night was. I’m pretty tired of living around trashy people. I’ve met plenty of cool, sane people in the 718s, but, man, without fail, every place I’ve lived out there, there have been COPS-style goons in the immediate vicinity, people who just exude negative charisma, bad times and borderline criminal stupidity. If you've seen the somber, defeated look of a mug shot, these people look like that all the time.

I don’t even know when she moved in – probably in the winter, when people close their windows by necessity. Before her, there’ve been cab drivers – there still must be at least one cab driver in the ground or top-floor apartments as there’s a yellow cab parked in the driveway on occasion. I remember a Puerto Rican couple moving in over there a few years ago. I was coming home one night, when I saw a woman parked out on the steps of that house, she waved at me and said hi, and I thought, well, that’s nice, a friendly person moving in. I went into my apartment, next thing I hear, very loudly, is a male voice, saying, “Oh, no, don’t tell me we live next door to white trash now. Shit.”

I got out of my apartment in a hurry, onto the street, took one look at the guy, who was a 5’ 5” stack of nothingness and said, “You got a problem with me, buddy?”

He didn’t answer. So I added, “I’ve been living here a lot longer than you have and will be here long after you’re gone. You want to be an asshole, that’s your problem, but I suggest you shut the fuck up. This aint Corona, shithead.”

No answer. He sort of just slunk down the alley after that. Any time those folks saw me on the street, they avoided eye contact, which was fine by me. What he had done to me would have been like me barking, "Oh, no, a bunch of spics just moved in next door" -- so if you are Hispanic, ask yourself how you'd handle some annoying white asshole you've never met before pulling that number on you. Normally, I wouldn't give a shit, but not when it's right next door.

Well, we never got much of a chance to get along or not get along, because they were gone two months later. Again, there’s a revolving door on that apartment, probably because the rent sucks, and as I’ve seen, whoever’s renting out the apartment has zero common sense and keeps leasing it out to fucking bozos who more than likely start falling behind in rent after a few months. When I first moved in, I recall coming home after work one night to see a guy looking at all his personal items neatly stacked in front of the house. Just sort of let that one pass. Came out the next morning, and both were gone.

The strange thing is, the rents in Astoria have gone through the roof in the past few years, and it should be very easy to find a stable tenant of any color, someone with a good job, who doesn’t mind paying $800 or $900 for a studio apartment, who wouldn’t fit in on The Jerry Springer Show. People like this are getting harder to come by in the neighborhood, which is good on one hand, but indicative of the gentrification that the higher rents are fostering. Still, whoever’s running that building next door has a real nose for trash and, against all odds, manages to find them without fail.

But there is a nice thing about the people next door. Every evening when I come home from work in warm weather, I usually find my landlord sitting on her front porch with a portly little old man in a wife beater and shorts. She sits in a lawn chair on her porch, and he’s sitting on her steps. He looks like an older Bob Hoskins. With my landlord’s husband passing away a few years back, I’m assuming he’s some sort of itinerary sixtysomething boyfriend, which is cool. He doesn’t speak a word of English. All he does is smile at me, laugh and say, “Hey, A-Billy, hey!” He’s one of those people who smile at you, and you smile back.

He lives next door, I think in the first-floor apartment, but I’m not sure. I have a hard time believing he’s the one calling the shots on apartment rentals – he seems more like an older family member hanging in there in his later years. It’s always nice to see him and my landlady, chuckling away in Greek. One of these days, I should ask my landlady what goes on with the people next door. But I understand that she’s had a huge blowout with “the lady of the house” – probably over an issue she was equally at fault over. But I’ve never seen the lady of the house, or for that matter, anyone else but that old laughing man and whatever reject who's temporarily taking up space in the basement.

The past few summers, I’ve made it a point of sweeping out their alley when I do my landlord’s sidewalk. Those big, fluffy cotton ball tree droppings are just starting now and tend to congregate as much in their alley as on her sidewalk. I’m not sure of the legality of whose responsible for cleaning up droppings from her tree on their property, but I think this year I’m going to stop doing that. Half because it’s not my responsibility and I was just being a nice guy, and half because I don’t want to get hit by a TV set heaved at me by a very angry, not very smart woman whom I wished lived somewhere else.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Good News for Fat Bastards

Well, here’s one of those strange media bits that makes absolutely no sense to me, but I understand the selling point: an article in the New York Observer stating that fat guys are now “in” and skinny guys are, for the most part, “out.”

What’s this based on? Movie characters (Vince Vaughn and Jack Black, both appearing in bombs), and random interviews on New York City streets. I’d be willing to wager with people the writer of the article knows personally. (And you should never trust interviews or surveys taken on the streets of New York because people here are crazier than shithouse rats and not indicative of any sweeping social movements.)

Is Vince Vaughn really that fat? Granted, he’s got a chubby face, especially compared to how he looked 10 years ago in Swingers. But I think we all learn that unless we’re simply geared to look that way, or starve ourselves, very few people maintain that late teen/early 20s sleekness throughout life. Vaughn has a big frame to work with – it’s only natural that he would fill out. He’ll one day turn into your uncle, the one who smells vaguely of onions and picks up dogs by their ears. But for now, he appears to be in reasonably good shape.

Now, Jack Black is chubby, but I suspect much less chubby in person than he looks on screen, where he’ll purposely make himself look heavier by going shirtless or wearing tight clothes to accentuate his size. His size isn’t an issue – his personality is. Some people love that “wacky big guy” routine. It sort of makes me want to throw right hooks into his face until all I can see is red pulp and a pair of eyes.

But even if Vaughn and Black were in hit summer blockbusters, the set-up of the article is this: to get fat guys to feel good about being fat, thin guys to feel empty, women dating fat guys to feel good about dating fat guys, and women dating thin guys to either feel justified if they want to dump them for being vain, or angry if they’re really good guys. The payoff is to get people debating the issue.

And there is no debate. Fat guys getting laid by models have money. Thin guys getting laid by models have money, too.

I suspect the type of women who would be affected by an article like this in a New York paper are the kind who would then date a fat guy for a week, realize he was just as assholic as their thin, neurotic boyfriends, spend the next week fretting over their shallowness, then drop a few extra grand on more therapy. Everybody else reads the article and goes, “What the fuck?” Especially fat guys, with the addendum, “Where’s all the pussy?”

About the only worth I’m willing to attribute to an article like this is, in that fictional world magazine and newspapers create, metrosexuality may begin to decline. This stuff is cancer on our society, the concept of making men feeling as uptight and inadequate about their physical presence as women. It’s cancer enough that women are brainwashed into buying this nonsense. It’s not an issue of gayness. I don’t care if “metrosexuality” is overly feminine. The real issue is getting men attuned to the idea of buying over-priced beauty products and services to keep them looking like they’re in their late teens forever. And as far as I’m concerned, the only beauty products I’m into are Cornhusker’s Lotion, Old Spice Speed Stick, Ivory soap and Pert Plus.

(A confession: last job I was on, a woman there got me turned onto Orange and Ginger hand soap from Bath & Body Works. So, I allow myself that one metrosexual indulgence. But every time I walk into one of those deeply unmasculine stores to buy the soap, I make sure to walk into a corner, unzip my pants, drop them to my knees, tuck my shirt back in and hike my pants back up – just like Dad used to do all the time.)

But, hey, no need for any beauty products – fat guys are now getting laid by models because the New York Observer said so! Guys, don’t even wipe your asses anymore. It’s not necessary! Women don’t want skinny guys who smell nice! They want big, stinking, ill-defined hunks of men, exuding an earthy musk, guys with huge sweaty balls and handlebar mustaches, who wear “Burn This One” American flag muscle shirts that accentuate their beer bellies. Six-pack abs? Keg abs! Cat hats and wallet chains! Screaming eagle forearm tattoos!

… then again, I’ve just described your average Williamsburg, Brooklyn trustafarian bullshit artist pretending he’s a redneck. The kind of guy I regularly see squiring around Paris Hilton lookalikes. Once again, it’s all about the benjamins, dude. Or in my case, the Washingtons.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer II

Well, I was right about the St. Abate Festival being just around the corner. Last night, all the white food-and-game trailers started parking on Ditmars Boulevard, getting ready for what I suspect will be a Thursday – Sunday run. On various corners were truckloads of these swarthy-looking workmen climbing ladders to screw in lightbulbs on the Christmas-looking street decorations. Time to surmise which night I’ll buy my customary over-priced sausage and peppers, about my only contact with the festival.

It’s hanky time for the train walk in the morning. I used to think hankies were the domain of old men and weirdoes, but guess what, when it’s 85 and humid on a brisk 10-minute walk to the subway train, it helps to use one instead of your hand to wipe the sweat away, unless you want your hand stinking. I also wipe off the back of my subway seat when I get up, as I can feel the moistness on my lower back and don’t want to freak out the next lucky sitter. Real heat in New York is getting caught too long in a sweltering subway station on a steaming, humid day. Once that curtain of humidity descends in June, those subterranean stations will stay that hot until late September.

While riding the trains, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of pregnant women, but there’s a problem with this. I’m working a job now where I’m helping fill in for a woman who worked up to a week before her scheduled child birth, and she was the size of a house. Her most consistent complaint was that she’d ride the train into Manhattan every morning from Far Rockaway (which I call “Fucking Far Rockaway” – it’s about as far as you can go on a subway train) and not once be offered a seat. Try strapping a 30-lb. weight on your stomach in a crowded subway car and tell me how it feels!

The problem is … unless a woman is obviously pregnant, I often can’t tell if she’s that or just chubby. Some women are just big or carrying a little extra weight, which is fine. But others tend to get pot-bellied – they’re not really fat per se, but whatever girth they acquire tends to settle in their belly and little sub-navel pouch. Thus making it very hard to tell if the woman is simply pot-bellied or with child.

The other day, I offered my seat to just such a woman who, to me, looked pregnant, even in the face. (That's often the only way I can tell -- a pregnant woman does have a particular glow to her face.) She glared at me, and snarled: “I’m not pregnant!” And I thought, “Baby, I really couldn’t tell. Why didn’t you just go along with it and get yourself a free seat?” I guess I should have played nice and said, “I know you’re not pregnant. You simply looked like you could use a break today. Please take my seat.”

But since she was such a pot-bellied little skank, I let it go. Between miniscule guys spreading their legs so wide they take up twice the space I normally do, and the usual shitbirds who could easily scoot over and leave plenty of room for someone else to sit, subway seats in rush hour are precious cargo. But unless I start point-blank asking women, “Are you just fat or pregnant,” I guess weird little snits like this will be inevitable. Frankly, if I were a woman, I’d strongly consider wearing a prosthetic pregnancy pouch every day just to get a subway seat.

These are the kind of things you dwell on when it gets hot in New York. I’ve been working a job on the Upper West Side the past few months, which hasn’t been bad. (The job kind of blows, but working in the neighborhood, which I rarely do, hasn't been bad at all.) Save that every lunch time, when I go out for a walk, without fail, I get accosted by the pollsters. These are college kids working for whatever left-leaning political organization, and you can always spot them a mile away, because there will be three or four of them spread out over a sidewalk on a given block, all wearing identical polo shirts, carrying clipboards, stationed in the middle of the sidewalk and making eye contact with everyone who passes.

It’s always the same shit: “Excuse me, sir, would you want to help us get the Republicans out of Congress?” Or: “Do you have a minute for gay rights?”

The most bullshit, baiting questions for their little surveys, and, no, I don't feeling like taking 15 minutes of my personal down time from work to do the dance. My answers, usually, in order: “Why aren’t there any Nazis in Congress?” and “Blow me.”

Actually, I see these kids a block away, try to maneuver my body as far as I can from their line of vision and never make eye contact – thus, I rarely have to talk to them. At least the Greenpeace nuts aren’t around anymore: “Do you have a minute to help save the whales?” Or the Falun Gong maniacs, imitating the various forms of torture they’ve suffered in China. Or the Black Israelites in their wacky Earth Wind and Fire get-ups, preaching anti-whitey hate speech through bullhorns.

Is it any wonder that a perfect lunch hour in the summer for me is to grab a sandwich, with my copy of the Daily News, find a nice park bench, regardless of whether or not it smells vaguely of dog piss, and simply sit, eat and read, maybe call a friend on the cellphone? I’ve been lucky enough to do this the past few weeks. A few days ago, I got up from a bench after doing this, only to have an old homeless guy the next bench over call out, “Hey, Mister, you forgot your envelope.” He was right – it was my landlord’s cable TV bill, and he could have easily got the money order inside and cashed it, if he wanted.

I thanked him and asked if he wanted my paper. He said, yeah, smiled, started laughing a little, and I slipped a few dollars into the folded paper before handing it to him. I spent the rest of my lunch hour in a boxy post office, sweating my ass off as I waited in line for a book of stamps because the vending machines were broken. Thank god for my hanky.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dog Days in Astoria

Well, this past weekend was the first full-on blast of deep summer in the city. Wasn’t as hot Saturday because of some unexpected cloud cover, but, man, Sunday was around 90 and humid. I don’t know what it is about the city, but it makes the heat seem worse than you might find in other environments. Add to this that I don't have air conditioning. (I have an air conditioner, but plugging it in and turning it on would most likely cause my landlord's entire house to erupt in a ball of flames.)

Swept out the landlord’s back patio and sidewalks on Saturday. May not seem like much, but pushing a broom and constantly bending for about two hours in summer heat is a pretty solid work-out – always leaves my back stiff. Even in the city, you wouldn’t believe how much shit falls off trees this time of year. Right now, it’s those little yellow “polleny” buds. A few weeks from now, this certain kind of tree my landlord has in front of her house, sheds this weird cotton-ball, wispy dropping by the shovel-full. That thing will bomb the sidewalk for a good month before these pea-pod things form on the end of the branches.

And, then, of course, the usual human droppings. Not shit. Or at least I haven’t seen it yet! But I have seen water and Gatorade bottles filled with piss. I’m still trying to grasp this logic of this. Some kid is purposely going to hold his penis over the mouth of a bottle, probably piss all over his hand in the process, just so he can experience the novelty of looking at his piss in a bottle? Dude, you’re already pissing in public … just lean up against a wall and piss. It has to be the kids using the small park behind the house. They’re always leaving a trail of junk, usually empty ice tea and soda bottles, and junk-food bags.

A few weeks back, some goons smashed a few bottles of a six pack on the sidewalk, which was a bitch to clean up, but I had a dog walker actually thank me while I was sweeping up the broken glass. (I guess goons who do this sort of shit don’t own or walk dogs.) I’m usually finding discarded six-packs out there in black plastic bags and such. Schoolyards are asshole magnets. Lord knows, these creeps probably hate(d) school, but something about the schoolyard keeps drawing them back after hours and later in life. Maybe they’re West Side Story fans? All I know is that I’m tuned into the bozo 15-year-old psyche, and it would be a perfect world if we could all beat the shit out of these kids every day without legal repercussion. Believe me, you live next to a schoolyard, you have to clean up after these little slobs, because if you don’t … my landlord has a $100 sanitation fine she had to pay back in March for letting her sidewalk get too dirty, and none of the junk was hers. Since then, I’ve disposed of an inflatable bed, a soccer ball, diapers and a pair of size 8 white sneakers. Still waiting for my first body part!

Usually after sweeping (which I do after the usual laundry/groceries circuit), I grab lunch and a nap, then hit the gym on 30th Avenue later in the afternoon. This time of year, there’s a real floating, hazy vibe to walking the streets of Astoria. A lot of people clear out on the weekends, probably for the beaches of Long Island, and the streets are pretty quiet. What was especially cool was that with World Cup soccer action going on, bars and cafes flew the flags of nations they were supporting and, without fail, the American flag along side it. Walking past the “Little Egypt” section of Astoria on the way to the gym, all those smoky little hookah cafes were flying what I think was Saudi Arabia’s flag? Maybe Egypt’s? I’m not good with flags. But I also saw Brazil, Italy, the Union Jack, Germany, the Czech Republic.

The Italian cafe across from my laundromat had Italy and U.S. flags flying in front – not sure who those folks would be rooting for. I’d bet Italy since a lot of those guys normally hanging out there make a big deal out of being a generation or two from the motherland. I can’t blame them. I’m always going to be a Pennsylvania sports fan, no matter how long I live in New York. Two years ago when Greece staged a huge upset and won the World Cup? Forget about it. Every Greek cafe was mobbed in Astoria, and I recall a naked guy wearing the flag of Greece for a cape running down the block at one point. That weird Euro-disco music playing all the while.

Most portentous, while walking down Ditmars Boulevard, I notice the Christmas-style decorations strung up over a few blocks: early-warning sign for the St. Abate street festival that overtakes the neighborhood in late June. This means that surly mix of the usual NYC street festival festivities – truly obnoxious, hounding hawkers working booths for dart-throwing and spinning wheels, along with over-priced sausages, zeppoli, roasted corn on the cob, etc. Rides for the kids like mini-ferris wheels and inflatable romper rooms. On one corner will be a band-stage for various Italian/polka/Mexican style bands to blast away at, and another, the actual St. Abate shrine, the significance of which, I’m not quite sure. You'll find a lot of older Catholics kneeling and crossing in front of it, putting dollar bills in it.

That’s always a strange few days, ethnic music echoing down the streets, all sorts of strange people moving in directionless mobs, some neighborhood weirdoes you never see until something like this happens, and this bizarre gaggle of goth kids who make a point to hit every saint’s festival in the city. A strange sight to see ashen-faced, all-in-black goth kids on the ferris wheel. But these kids seem pretty harmless, if a little weird. Anyone who lives in the general vicinity and isn’t into St. Abate is glad as hell when the festival closes up shop after a few days.

On Sunday, I noticed the oddest, but surest sign of summer while returning from my boxing class: the mini-music festival that takes places outside the pizza joint I never go to on the northwest corner of 31st and Ditmars. I still haven’t quite figured out what it is, but it seems to be a duo of two middle-aged guys playing guitar and electronic keyboard, knocking out a variety of hits for a bunch of senior citizens who gather around them in lawn chairs and such. I’ve heard everything from Sinatra, to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” to the Macarena, to the Battle Hymn of the Republic … all to that Casio samba beat, with whoever’s singing lead going for full lounge effect, dropping in “Jack” and “ho” at the end of some verses. Old couples get up and dance. These guys bring the house down every time.

And you know what? I think it’s pretty cool that this sort of stuff goes on, that some semblance of neighborhood normality is preserved in an act like this every Sunday in warm weather. Those folks who attend this frankly don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks about them, although they'd never put it that way. When I ask myself whom I’d rather be around, old people doing a foxtrot to a lounge version of “Silly Love Songs” or a bunch of snotty kids smashing bottles on a sidewalk, take a wild guess. I think it’s time I start to take dancing lessons. Just another summer in Astoria.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Denmar Gardens?

Ever heard of the place? It seems like not many people have. It’s a small village just outside of Kulpmont, Pennsylvania. Blink and you might miss it. It’s much different from similar small villages like that in northeast Pennsylvania in that all the homes are fairly swank for such a working-class area: split-level ranch homes with large front and back yards, tastefully tree-lined blocks, even a senior citizen’s center. Probably a few hundred people living there, not sure of the exact number.

Why do I note Denmar Gardens? Let me ask another question: have you ever heard of Centralia? You probably have – if not, the link will let you know much of what you need to know about the mine fire that’s been burning there since the early 60s, and has caused nearly the entire town to relocate. There are now literally two or three houses still standing and a handful of extremely stubborn people living there. They’re outnumbered by the tourists who drive by on any given day to snap pictures of the smoking ground on the Ashland end of town.

Denmar Gardens is where a majority of the Centralia natives relocated when the government offered them generous buy-out deals for their properties – not sure of the specifics, but it may have involved a healthy sum for the home and property, and a low-interest loan for the owner to buy or build a home elsewhere. I think Denmar Gardens may have been called New Centralia for a short while, but quickly took on this new name, more fitting of what appears to be a nice suburban-style enclave, which was a patch of woods before the town sprung up.

Why mention this? Simply because when I poke around the web, Denmar Gardens is the ghost town, and Centralia is all over the place! Denmar Gardens hardly seems to exist and surely doesn’t in any of the dozen or so stories I’ve come across in the past few weeks. It’s a real place, filled with people who lived in Centralia, but for some odd reason, this next chapter of the Centralia story somehow doesn’t fit in with the American gothic myth now being built around this place. (In this version, everyone who lived in Centralia would now be hoboes jumping trains in the midwest.)

What I do see on the web is a lot of strange ghost-town stories about Centralia, focusing only on the fire and the present-day state of the former town. There were many more stories back in the 80s when the town started coming down via bulldozer as people slowly took the government’s deal. The main issue then was when to take the deal, and surely there must still be some burned bridges between those who held out longer and those who took the deal fairly quickly. The hold-outs were convinced that this was all a ploy for the government to obtain mineral rights to their land, thus making millions by mining it. (This hasn’t happened.)

A movie was made at that time, Made in USA , starring the late Chris Penn, Adrian Pasdar and Lori Singer that has footage of what Centralia looked like for those few key years when it all came down: constant noise from demolition crews, row houses with plywood boards over the windows, numbers spray-painted on the boards to designate their demolition dates. If you follow the link, you can still buy the movie for $0.75 on VHS – don’t think it’s ever going to make it to DVD. Naturally, I still find the Centralia part of the movie pretty cool to watch. And the fact that a bar they later visit outside of St. Louis is actually the now long-gone Wooden Nickel just outside of Mt. Carmel, a place where I got tanked a few times in my early 20s.

(Sidenote: a few years after I moved to New York in 1987, I was part of a gym/social club in which Adrian Pasdar was a member. It blew his mind when I told him that a few years earlier, I had seen him and the film crew at work in Centralia while I drove to a very short-lived job at a window factory in Mt. Carmel, the last job I had before moving to New York.)

I guess there’s nothing dramatic about Denmar Gardens, and it’s more of a kick to focus on a smoking hole in the ground surrounded by green fields laced with empty roads where houses once stood. I found some kids on Youtube who did a very short “documentary” on Centralia which focuses on all this aftermath stuff, set to the dramatic orchestra theme music from the movie, Requiem for a Dream. Not sure what all the drama is about. Motherfuckers, it's a smoking hole in the ground. You look at it for five minutes and feel weird. Then you get in your car and go. The film is pretty cheesy, and what’s worse is the kids who filmed it have that horrible mid-Atlantic accent that gives them away as being from southern PA, Delaware, central Jersey or Maryland. I cringe every time I hear that accent. Not a good accent to juxtapose against a region that has a very distinct, more guttural accent. To me, being from that area, it feels like kids with a haughty English accent doing a documentary on Harlem.

But I often wonder about Denmar Gardens. I never really knew anyone from Centralia, and thus don’t know anyone in Denmar Gardens. Sometimes, on a quiet summer’s day, you can drive through Centralia and see a bunch of old geysers sitting in lawn chairs by the town’s war memorial at the main intersection. It would be grand to pull over, whip out a lawn chair and six pack of Yuengling, and find out how those guys feel about all this. But those guys put out such an exclusionary “leave us the hell alone” vibe that it’s wise just to keep driving. It was their town -- not yours.

It's just a bunch of old timers mourning land that was once theirs, regardless of whether the new land they were given is somehow better. I understand how those guys feel. Oddly, that’s more an urban feeling. I know people from the Bronx who will drive around their old neighborhoods on Sunday mornings, places where they were children in the 60s and 70s, silently mutter “what the fuck happened here,” then leave, with that childhood sense of home as distant as their memories. You can go back to the place, but whatever you knew of it, no longer exists.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Not Army Photos of Elvis

Stumbled across this one in my photo files -- further proof of Leo's haircutting abilities, and I really wasn't kidding when I say I used to get crew cuts all the time in my childhood. Looks like a school photo in which I'm missing my front teeth. Sort of Joe Strummer imitating Elvis in the Army photo. It's no wonder I was nuts. Half the time, I looked like Gomer Pyle, and the other half like Charles Manson. I think I went out and stole a Cadillac after this was taken.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Soccer Moms, NASCAR Dads and Homophobes

No, that's not the title of the new Toby Keith album.

Lately, I find myself annoyed by the usual catch-phrases the media uses to classify people -- words like soccer moms, NASCAR dads and homophobes. I don't even think the intent is to classify people. It's to make the reader mentally picture what all these people must look like, and then condescend to these imaginary people -- you must somehow be better than they are because they're so easily identifiable, and you're not.

The problem with all these cute little descriptors that seep into the general culture is that they're never meant as compliments. Soccer mom? We're supposed to picture a middle-aged woman with an SUV, maybe was once attractive but is now average looking, generic short women's hair, wearing frumpy clothes and constantly squiring around her spoiled spawn from one programmed social event to another. She might be wearing a whistle around her neck. She's responsible enough to drive with a handless cellphone. She cuts you off in traffic. She's transferred her Type-A corporate mentality to how she's raising her kids. I think the main dig against the soccer mom is that she must be affluent enough not to have to work. Common perception in America is that soccer is the domain of the white, wealthy suburbs. I guess "lacrosse" doesn't pack the same punch, although it plays far more to the same crowd. Ergo, she's an asshole.

NASCAR dad? He has a pot belly and needs a shave. He may even have a poorly-kept handlebar mustache. He wears John Deere hats, bib overalls and Richard Petty wrap-around shades. He's a Republican, or claims to be a Libertarian (but is really a Republican who doesn't want to be known as such). He makes good money at some working-class job that he has stuck with for years and is now seeing some payback on. He has a can of Bud perpetually in hand and listens to only country music and classic rock. As the name implies, he's an aficionado of racing ... or baseball ... or football ... and spends all his spare time watching these sporting events on TV, when not monkeying with chainsaws and riding lawn mowers in the backyard. Aside from that, he'll watch DVDs like Joe Dirt, Tommy Boy and anything with Adam Sandler. Ergo, he's an asshole.

What both the NASCAR dad and soccer mom have in common is that they are defined by imaginary children. The assumption is they are married, happily or otherwise, and their main function in life, when not being a pinata for the media, is to raise children. They're not NASCAR sons and soccer daughters.

Do these people really exist? When I was growing up, my mom pretty much played the role of what a soccer mom does now -- she raced around in our station wagon, dropping us kids off at whatever we were into at the time, from little league games to band practices. She also kept the house clean, did laundry and prepared meals – try doing it some time for six people, four of them kids, and see how much fun that is.

So, my mom was basically a soccer mom. Although we never played soccer. Or had any money to spare. Or lived in anything but a working-class environment. And let's not forget the fact that my mother simply sees herself as a woman going through life, who was married and had kids. I may have called her Mom, but she didn't define herself that way. I note this now because I'm at an age where about half my friends have kids and half don't. For the ones who have kids, I never define them in terms of father or motherhood, mainly because we’ve known each other way before kids came into the picture.

And I don't think of the friends without kids as pathetic, lost souls who missed the point of life. I always think of that scene from It's a Wonderful Life where George is running through the empty, imaginary future created when the angel shows him what the world would be like if he had never existed. He runs into his wife, who is clearly a mousy librarian, childless and alone, whom we must pity because she never married (because she never met George to begin with).

That scene gives me real trouble. Doesn't the possibility exist that maybe her life would have been better had she never met him? Or forget better/worse -- just a different life, with its ups and downs, like any other life? The whole point of the movie was to show George that his life mattered. But it dismissed the context of everyone else's life -- their lives would be worse without him. And it's my contention that it would no slight against George if his wife had gone on to become, say, Betty Page, and had married a fabulously wealthy man, then lived happily ever after. It wouldn't diminish George's life one bit to know this. And let’s say she remains that librarian living on her own – it’s impossible for her to be happy this way? She can only be happy married to a sparkplug like George? What if she had kids, with one dying in ‘Nam and another jumping off a dorm roof at college after dropping acid?

But dismissing the context of everyone else's life is the key to the game. Because that's what coining cute little catch phrases like soccer mom and NASCAR dad do. It's a nod-and-wink to the reader that he's in on the joke. The writers attach meaningless short cuts to perceptions that are probably wrong to begin with, and made worse by assumptions based on harmless cultural touchstones. So some working-class guy looks like a slob, has a Bush bumpersticker on his pick-up truck and likes to watch racing on TV. Big fucking deal. If you think calling him “NASCAR dad” nails him, you need to step outside your little world and realize he doesn’t give a shit what you call him.

"Homophobe" is an entirely different issue, but similar in that it's another word I see constantly in the media, and it makes very little sense to me. Let me see if I understand this. Anyone who doesn't pledge complete approval of homosexuality is a homophobe. If that isn’t true, in all honesty, that’s the feeling I get when I see the word used for anything from a pack of guys beating what they perceive to be a gay man to death on the street late at night, to someone who makes an offhand joke.

In my mind, neither of those two scenarios is exclusively indicative of homophobia. The etymology of the word implies fear of homosexuality. This may be a rude wake-up call to everyone who bandies around the word as casual accusation on a daily basis, but not all people who take issue with homosexuality are afraid of homosexuals. Blind hatred isn’t necessarily fear. Fear and hatred are separate emotions – sometimes joined together, but not one in the same. And some people just aren’t down with homosexuality, most likely for religious reasons. They’re entitled to their beliefs, whether anyone else likes it or not.

And here’s a secret about heterosexuals and homosexuality. If I fully embraced it, then I’d be gay myself and practicing it. I don’t embrace it, much less fully. If some guy tried to kiss me, even in a non-romantic way, it wouldn’t go down well. I respect the rights of adults to practice any sexuality they please that doesn’t involve children or animals. I don’t support homosexuality, nor do I condemn it. It’s just there, and someone’s sexuality is not even an issue with me. I don’t judge anyone by their sexuality. If you are openly gay, that’s fine by me.

Now, does the above paragraph make me a homophobe? Judging by the standards I often see here in New York, I would be harangued as such and a “closet case” for not pledging total support for a sexuality that isn’t mine. And I can tell you there’s a huge difference between me and some guy laying a broken beer bottle upside another guy’s head outside a gay bar. Or any other horrible crime of that sort. It’s not something I need to “work on.” I’ve worked on it, and this is the end result. Gay people have nothing to fear from me, and I have nothing to fear from them.

The word “homophobe” has become so over-used that it’s lost its true meaning – like the word “fascist.” And even if you’re convinced someone is a homophobe, again, please note the difference between hatred and fear. I’d wager that a guy physically attacking a gay man on the street is not necessarily filled with fear. Generally speaking, humans do not attack when they’re afraid – they run away. The guy fears some deeply-hidden homosexual feelings in himself? That might be true; it might not. The guy might just be a psychopath. A pack of guys attacking a gay couple might just be looking for any lightning rod to set off their mob mentality. And they might all have a hidden picture buried deep in their minds of each of them sucking cock. Who knows?

There have been a few times in my life when I've found myself laughing to the point of tears over guys pulling gay riffs on each other -- whether it was gay guys camping it up with each other, or hyper-macho guys busting on each other. Neither mean any harm, but I'm assuming the hyper-macho guys would be designated as homophobes. They must be hiding something to be so callous! They must be gay and either not know it or are hiding from it! Homophobes!

(My advice would be to avoid calling someone a homophobe to his face. If he is, he may belt you, and if he isn't, he may belt you. I get the impression "homophobe" is a word rarely uttered towards anyone as an accusation. It's a lot safer to print it from afar or run the idea by like-minded individuals as a complaint against the alleged homophobe in absentia.)

I know I sound like an idiot breaking down this topic, but how many times do you read anyone trying to decipher these sort of words and what they really mean? On one hand, we’ve been trained to shudder in abject shame over accusations like homophobia, and the other encouraged to revel in catch phrases like soccer mom and NASCAR dad.

I think what’s really going on with a word like “homophobe” is an attempt by the left to coerce everyone into adopting their point of view regarding homosexuality. If you don’t communicate acceptance to them, then you are in some way homophobic -- you have "issues" -- whatever that means. In their minds, they’re forcing all of us to choose one side or the other, and I’d rather not do that with something containing so many gray areas as human sexuality and how each of us chooses to deal with it. I’d also rather not indulge the sick head games both the left and right are playing by forcing the issue on whatever pet cause they’re championing – which seems like a daily litany in America. I know it’s best not to get caught up in these insane word plays, but sometimes it does annoy me.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Redneck Mystique #4

The other night, I pined for a bowling shirt I had given away to a girl back in my 20s. I've bowled maybe three times in my whole life, and I stopped pining for that girl a year or so after things fizzled out. The shirt was a beauty -- light tan, with a black outline on the back of a well-groomed, 50s-style bowler, in classic bowling pose, next to a huge ball striking pins in every direction. It had black sleeves, and on the left breast, rodeo-style, the name "Gus" was written.

At that time, I was swimming in the shirt -- now, it would probably fit! But in one of those misguided "little head thinking for big head" moments, I made the shirt a present to her after she went nuts over it. But it got me to thinking about that odd appeal these kind of shirts have to younger white guys: the work-shirt mystique.

You can file this under one of those "you know you're a redneck if ..." situations, but generally speaking, you know you're a redneck if you're wearing a company's work shirt at a bar, and that's your real name on the left breast, and that's the company you work for emblazoned on the right. Most hipsters don't work in places requiring one to wear an official uniform. (Nevertheless, they'll create one for themselves, revolving around bed-head hair, clunky-framed glasses, ironic t-shirts and such.) And most guys reach a certain age, usually late 20s/early 30s, when they realize the unfortunate truth: that when people see you wearing one of these work-shirts with a name and company name on it, they assume that's who you are and where you work.

I could easily pass for an air-conditioner repairman. Or Fedex guy. Or beer-truck driver. Give me a bad mustache, and I could be an off-duty cop or fireman. I guess I should take this as a compliment -- it means I look a little older, a little more sober, more dependable. Because some stick-thin, mopey 22-year-old with a goofy hair cut wearing the same shirt would clearly be going for ironic intent.

But I'm trying to figure what ironic statement is being made. I used to wear work shirts like that, too, but stopped with the hazy recognition that people didn't know I was being ironic. Sort of like how I always get stopped in stores if I wear a white shirt and a tie, because people think I work there. (The people who stop me have zero people skills, but are desperate. They should note that the average retail floor employee will avoid eye contact with them, and certainly not smile at them, like I'll do. They should be looking for the disinterested slob with an attitude ... no, that's not an angry customer ... that's an angry employee who'd rather walk around pretending to work than actually work.)

In my mind, I thought it was cool to emulate that stodgy worker look. When I worked summers in my dad's factory, the coolest part of it was putting on this white, Devo-style jump suit every day. It gave me a sense of going to work that jeans and a t-shirts wouldn't. But as a guy in my early 20s, I guess I was riffing on the concept that there was no way a guy who looked like I did could be named "Gus" and work for a beer distributor or refrigeration company. It was a strange sort of vanity related to youth -- I saw myself as somehow better than a guy named "Gus" who worked for a beer distributor. And status -- I was going to college. You'd rarely see working-class guys not on that path wearing ironic work-shirts for kicks. (They'd be wearing those shirts for real soon enough.)

I've reached a point now where I look at young guys going this route with a mild disdain. I'm not sure why, because I did the exact same thing. Maybe it's because if I'm in a bar with an older guy unironically wearing a work shirt, and younger guy ironically wearing one, I've learned that the older guy is much more interesting. The younger guy will be engaging in Dr. Suess-style conversations where everything's a fucking joke, and his bitterness will be well-displayed and manufactured. Some guy with his real name printed on the left breast of his work shirt, rest assured, will have numerous axes to grind. Beyond "my dad is a dick." (Try "my dad is dead" on for size, young amigo, and find it a few sizes too large.) But his take on the world will often be: "I'm here to forget my problems, not make you think I'm a more interesting person because I have them." There's also the very real X-factor that a drunken conversation with a guy wearing a real company shirt might end up with either of you in a headlock for no apparent reason.

The work-shirt mystique is sort of half-assed salute to working-class people. I don't recall having open contempt for people who wear name-breasted work shirts for real. But I do recall a mild, stupid and very shallow arrogance towards them that I probably wouldn't have admitted to back then. If you were to create a fictional scenario where some guy in a real work-shirt angrily confronted the then twentysomething smart-ass I was in my fake work-shirt, I would have been kissing that guy's ass, in abject fear that, at the most, he'd beat the shit out of me, and at the least, he wouldn't respect me on some imaginary level where I had to answer to him because I was faking it.

You reach a point later in life where you really don't care what people think about you. And that's the point where you park the company van by the bar, go on in at 5:15, and knock a few back in your work-shirt before heading home and dealing with whatever goes on there. (I do the equivalent all the time in New York -- as noted a few posts earlier, simply because it's much cheaper to drink around here 4 to 8 pm.) It's also the point where you stop bullshitting yourself and just be whoever you are, with no pretensions or apologies. I don't wear jokey work-shirts with fake names because that's not who I am. I meet very few guys my age wearing shirts that don't have their own names on them. And if they do, be it sports stars or some mono-syllabic goof of a name on a fake work shirt, I tend to avoid them like the plague.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Graduation Speechless

Thus far in life, I'm lucky enough to have only sat through graduation speeches for my own classes ('82 and '86, respectively). In '82, that must have been Eugene Monahan, our high-school class president, spouting the usual malarkey about the future and our brave roles in it. I still feel bad about Eugene -- a good (and very smart) guy. Think he's a lawyer now in the Harrisburg area. I feel bad because when he was running for class president at our Penn State branch campus, I told him I was going to vote for him the day of the election, and didn't vote. He lost by one vote. I think he knew, but was cool about it. I would have kicked my own ass.

In '86 at Penn State, forget it. I was lucky to be standing upright. My friends and I -- Justin, Colin, that whole gang who hung out at Headquarters, their motley apartment conveniently located downtown -- basically spent the week after finals and before graduation burning down the house. The few times in my life that I've been high, most of them were that week. We were all stoned, drunk and partying for about five days straight. I would wake up late morning, immediately go for a five-mile run to clean out my system, have some lunch, take a nap, then meet up with the guys for a drinking/drugging session that lasted from about four in the afternoon until two in the morning. Same thing all week. It was more like some extended tribal ceremony, the drug/alcohol equivalent of hanging from pegs poked through the skin of our chests.

I puked every night. One night, I recall Colin carrying me like a sack over his shoulder because I couldn't function. Guys who passed out got peanut butter packed into their underwear, so when they woke up, they'd think they had shit their pants in their stupor. Adding to their confusion, some guys actually would shit their pants and have both feces and peanut butter in their underwear. I recall one guy blurting out, "Who put chocolate in my peanut butter?"

Strangers had sex in sinks and bath tubs. We started a bonfire in some guy's backyard, and even though he didn't know us, he was cool with it and pondered the flames along with us. Amidst this utter chaos, Colin's strict religious family showed up, horrified, as did his then-fiance's father, Vinny, who was totally nuts and threatened to beat up all of us just for shit and giggles. I remember Regis, Colin and I taking turns at the toilet bowl, each nudging the other's head out of the way so he could puke into it, just like those kittens in that long-lost cat-food commercial.

It was a wild week, capped off by a last supper, where we ate hoagies and watched Siskel & Ebert, no one wanting to admit this was the end. I recall saying goodbye to Colin, unexpectedly choking up, and realizing we were going to go on being friends in some form the rest of our days, which surely wasn't the case for a lot of us.

In other words, President Reagan could have been reading Naked Lunch through a vocoder at my graduation ceremony, and I wouldn't have noticed. Everyone I knew was still wasted or coming down hard from a vicious week-long bender. My brother J and neighbor Bubba came up to State College the night before, couldn't find me, and got drunk, feeding beers to a stray dog on some frat's lawn before passing out there. Angry couples fucked for the last time, friendships were shattered and reborn in the course of hours, many sweeping St. Elmo's Fire-style moments transpired, promises were broken, true and false farewells bade, we all got our diplomas and got the fuck out of there. Well, most of us did -- I spent that whole summer working part-time in the German Department, lazing in the sun and loafing before clearing out.

I've often wondered how I'd fare with a real graduation speech. The gall of this is that many celebrities chosen for these speeches, simply-stated, stepped in dogshit in terms of getting where they are. Sure, they've worked hard, but most of us never see purposely hidden things like nepotism, lucky breaks, Ivy League connections, behind-the-scenes manipulation, those little X factors that I've seen make all the difference between struggling and making it. But talent wise, it's a very thin line between some guy working a day-job and doing auditions when he can, and, say, Colin Farrell. Not to take anything away from these folks -- once they get where they're going, they most likely work their asses off to stay there.

But I'm thinking what sort of hard-won wisdom I'd impart to a bunch of shitheads in caps and gowns. And, let's face it, college kids are shitheads, as are their high-school counterparts. I was a shithead, too. I knew very little about life at the time, and that the really valuable lessons could only be learned through experience. And kids simply don't have that much experience -- it comes with passing time. Some kids are wise beyond their years, and I respect that, but nothing teaches you like getting your ass kicked through life.

I wouldn't encourage kids to be adventurous, unless they had the money to do so. "Adventurous" in my mind is synonymous with "fuck-up." Besides, anything that doesn't require sitting in a classroom is adventurous to a college kid at that point. If you need encouragement to be adventurous, then you are not adventurous. And that's fine. I've come to recognize most of us are meant to be responsible, stand-up individuals who get shit done -- simply the quiet nature of the world. Thinking about following that girlfriend you've been tempestuously fighting with for the past two years to Amarillo? Let the bitch go. Find someone new to fight with. Only reason you should go to Amarillo is to try to eat a 72 oz. steak in under an hour at The Big Texan steakhouse. Otherwise, let the bitch go, dude.

Ditto, taking risks. Take risks only when you can afford the repercussions of failing. Plenty of successful business people preach the gospel of taking risks, not fully understanding they've risked very little, compared to people who never had any financial hope in life. It wouldn't occur to me to risk anything financially when all I've seen is people in debt up to their necks, or struggling to get by and, if they're smart, saving as much money as possible. Most "mavericks" you meet in the business world are either maniacal or come from a background that financially allows them to fail and still hold on to a cushy way of life. You find someone who came out of nowhere to achieve massive success, if that guy's smart, he's salting away as much money as he can.

I've never met a Gatsby-esque character like this in nearly 20 years of NYC office life, despite the predictably self-aggrandizing bullshit rich men believe about themselves. I've met plenty of people who are having a hell of time just getting by, on every level of society. All that grandiose shit we piled on at the end of college? It hasn't mean a thing to me since then. I'm not going to stand in judgment of some guy pumping gas or taking my change for a newspaper every morning. Fuck it -- if he can make that work for him and still smile at me, I'm going to respect that as much or more than someone trying to get over on me with their exalted position in life.

Be less open-minded, less trusting of people, because they may fuck you up in the end. Then again, it makes sense to trust a few numb-nuts who end up raking you over the coals, simply to give you valuable negative experience in life. These sort of things happen periodically throughout all our lives, and aggravated assault charges being what they are, it's best to learn and move on. Paul McCartney sang, "When you were young, and your heart was an open book," but even he came to the conclusion that it made more sense to live and let die. This coming from a guy who wanted to hold your hand 10 years earlier. Now he's 64 and getting raked over the coals financially by a one-legged, soon-to-be ex-wife he purposely didn't have sign a pre-nup. Life gets funny like that.

The best advice, figuratively speaking, comes from the character of Lawrence, the mulleted construction worker in the movie Office Space, who advises Peter, whom he thinks is on his way to "federal/pound me in the ass" prison for his penny-shaving scheme: "Protect your cornhole, buddy."

The best advice, literally, is to never take anyone's advice. The best song of the 90s, Baz Luhrmann's mix of "Everbody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" , is chock-full of hard-won wisdom, funny as hell and makes more sense than any graduation speech you'll ever hear. Because you know what? None of us know what the fuck we're doing. The ones who think they do? They're attaching false values and a misleading, bloated sense of importance to relatively meaningless things in their lives. No one else cares, believe me, but these are things we tell ourselves to stave away the darkness that will one day fall over every one of us. Between quaint things like college graduations and our last days on earth, life will kick the shit out of all of us. Sometimes things will go our way; sometimes they won't. All you need to do is whatever it takes to stay sane and healthy. Reproduce if it helps, and treat your children like gold. Treat everyone with respect and lose those who don't return it. The rest is bullshit.