Monday, September 25, 2006

Web Wackiness

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much time I waste on the web and how that impacts my writing output. It’s made me realize that the web serves as a sort of adult video game, where you can spend hours putzing around on it and not accomplish a single quantifiable thing. But kids playing video games inadvertently develop their motor-reflex skills? Well, something tells me if that kid was an actual sniper wandering around a warehouse shooting everyone in sight, that might be a different story. Ditto, writing a lot of stuff on the web isn’t quite the same thing as structuring an actual story, or even a coherent point of view.

In particular, internet message boards present a real diversion from actually getting anything done. I’ve been on a few, dropped off nearly all of them, and the one I remain on, related to the music industry, I hardly post at all because I’ve let most of my connections to that industry slide (which isn’t a bad thing), on top of which, folks on that board are notoriously infantile and snotty. Which is what you would expect from the music industry. I’m finding it more enjoyable just to read these things for pertinent information, contribute briefly when I can, and stand back when people start getting strange with each other, which is a large part of the attraction for a lot of folks. In these politically-charged times. In which the country is split in half. (Sidenote: the country is not split in half. The assholes in our country are split in half, and they like fighting with each other, particularly on the internet.)

I was recently on a board associated with my neighborhood in Queens, but realized in a hurry that there was a strange, unspoken Lord of the Flies type hierarchy in place there, complete with a deeply misguided morality. One apparently unpopular member with these folks was openly ridiculed in a thread created explicitly for his humiliation. (I'd been on this board about two months -- I saw the guy post numerous times, and didn't see him post anything horrible.) A few people piled on (as expected), a few like me called bullshit, then most people bent over backwards to coddle the guy who started the thread – who normally seemed like a pretty sane guy on the board – because one of their own had been called into question (and he responded like a fucking child).

The guy apologized to the board, but not the person he intended to humiliate – it was a “joke,” which was supposed to alleviate any qualms anyone had. Right. All I could think was this was a dime-store version of Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" -- a spoiled rich kid beating a murder rap because his victim was a social outcast. I wanted no part of that shit, even if it was only minor public humiliation as opposed to murder. A lot of people showed their true colors on that issue, and I don't want them in my life (because I'd forcibly remove them, sooner or later, for being so casually amoral).

What anyone who’s spent any time on an internet message board immediately sensed was a ton of private messages among the inner circle, rallying troops in this time of crisis. Maybe that weekend, a gathering of bored and lonely thirtysomethings at a backyard beer bash, commiserating with their “us against the world” attitude … with a bunch of, when you get down to it, people who were total strangers months or weeks ago, but have suddenly become brothers in arms on some internet message board. I know how that scenario plays out. A lot of people suss out that they’re not part of the inner circle, they fade out of the mix, that core group of true believers stops growing, and sooner or later, they start lighting each other up in private the way they do some undesirable entity on the board. It all ends up with hurt feelings, betrayals and cliques worse than anything you’d find in a junior high school.

It’s all about loneliness. In Queens right now, you have neighborhoods being newly populated by white folks with college educations, entering environments that run from indifferent to hostile (most likely over issues of gentrification … although Queens natives will gladly treat you like an asshole for no good reason), and they want to band together in some sense. Which makes perfect sense to me. A lot of people I’ve been seeing on the streets lately in my neighborhood, fuck’s sake, if I was criminal-minded, I’d be taking them off, because they’re so obviously green and out of place in a working-class neighborhood (which is rapidly changing).

So I can easily grasp how these new people would want to come together with like-minded individuals. I just can’t wrap my mind around how these little fifedoms come into being and flourish. You talk to any of these people individually, and they’re shocked and amazed that you see this happening, and frankly insulted that you’d think they’d be part of something that insidious. But they don’t realize it’s just a healthy dose of human nature, and no great crime, but a little one all of us commit on occasion. And, of course, none of them will admit that they know at least a few of the people in their group are certifiable. It’s the internet: the perfect hideout for maniacs and misfits. You can’t put any group together on it and not turn up a few garden-variety sociopaths, and plenty of other people who have the charisma of body odor.

What was funny to me about that whole scenario, while I was inadvertently defending a person I didn’t know (it was more the principle of someone being singled out, followed by a pile on and a noticeable lack of shame), was that 10 years ago, about the age I suspect most of that inner circle are now, I was famous for ripping people on another internet message board, in ways that would make anything these rank pussies came up with seem downright quaint. At that time, I think I was fairly unhappy, albeit making the most money I ever would in my adult life. But it was at a job where I was getting put through the paces daily, and just not seeing any sort of future in the place, save more money and the same strenuous work load. I escaped by turning into this scandalous internet villain, infamous for brawling with any and everyone who wanted. Granted, the folks I brawled with were nutty and obtuse, but I was pretty good at it. I eventually quit the place a few times, but still read the board for its information.

(For the record, I spent most of the time being a fairly docile, albeit highly-entertaining and well-informed member of the board. People tend to remember the flare-outs much more vividly, whereas I remember everything. Do I regret brawling with people? Sure, it was stupid and nasty -- indicative of the unhappy place I was in at that time of my life. But more than anything, I regret wasting that much time on meaningless issues, with people just as or far more fucked up than I was. I'd say I'm happier these days simply because I'm older an wiser, more attentive to passing time, and not willing to waste it in that sort of manner. I'll still waste tons of time, but not by messing with people, that's for sure. You put loved ones in the ground, time becomes a real issue in how you go on living. Boredom and loneliness are not valid options. One of my golden rules of New York life has always been “avoid meaningless confrontation” – damn near every confrontation on the internet is meaningless.)

Along with the fighting, most boards start repeating themselves fairly regularly and quickly. Threads and ideas that rolled around last year will pop up again this year, and next year, and the following year, and the same people will respond to them as if they are fresh and new. If someone notices and takes umbrage, it will be duly noted, and people will still go on responding positively to the thread. Is this insanity? Not really. We do it with each other in terms of personal conversations – often times to create small myths, or simply because some things bear repeating and taking comfort in. That’s one thing I notice about myself as I get older. I have the same conversations with people I’ve known for years, many times over. And when I’m having these conversations, I’m well aware we’ve had these conversations many times before. Live long enough and you accept this, as opposed to flagellating yourself for going through the motions.

People on these boards carry on about creating community, but for the life of me, I see no community there. I see a bunch of lonely (and/or unsatisfied) people, floating in their personal space, connected by this very thin thread, the main requirement of which is to spend time alone in front of a computer. When people do get together, good and bad things happen. Hell, sometimes people even fall in love – it’s not all bad. But for the most part, the usual things happen when you gather people who have very little in common (beyond whatever the board is about), living different lifestyles, often pretty set in their ways, and it doesn’t take long before people realize, “Man, I really don’t like that guy!” Or guys. Or girls. Or girls and guys. Or every fucking person in sight. And their dogs. Then people split apart, which is good, as they learn to take away relationships and things that will last, as opposed to forcing some canned sense of community. It's not a failure of humanity -- it's reality.

We all reach a point in our lives where we close ranks. Slowly lose the acquaintances. Start counting the real friends on two hands or less. If we have kids, we focus on them. Focus on work. And I think at first, that’s a fairly lonely feeling, as opposed to the tribe mentality we’re imbued with in high school, and often foster throughout our 20s. Before wedding bells (and other such shit) start breaking up that old gang of ours. People go their own ways. And that’s just the way of the world.

With internet message boards, a lot of us hope to stave off that sense of isolation, or hopefully create another avenue to a new group of friends. But it never fully happens – you’ll pull a few friends from these things, but most people will pass you by. And I’d say that’s ultimately a good thing. I’m a lot better off doing what I’m doing now than trying to deal with people who may be totally nuts or part of some half-assed cabal, but, more than anything, are probably lonely as hell and looking to create some sparks in their lives. Can't fault them for that, and don't feel any need to be their flint.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Back to PA

Well, heading back to Pennsylvania tomorrow for one of my 6-8 weeks-ish trips. When I first starting doing this in 1987, I could go round trip for $44. Now, it’s $84. Then again, I’m also taking the bus straight to my town, as opposed to getting off at one of the main stops (Hazleton – about half an hour north on Route 81), which tacks on a few dollars both ways. But the price really has gone up. Burns me that there are round-trip buses out of Reading (about an hour south) for $40, total. Just have to grin and bear it.

I think back then in the late 80s, I envisioned myself having a car to make this trip somewhere down the road – in my 30s somewhere? But I’ve come to realize having a car tends to be a real hassle in New York. I’d never use it during the week, save to change the sides of the street to avoid being ticketed on street-cleaning days. I’d have to watch over to it to make sure it didn’t get stolen, broken into, vandalized, towed or otherwise messed with. It would come in handy on weekends, and surely for trips like this. But when you factor in all that negative stuff, on top of the outrageous New York state auto insurance, gas prices, repair, inspection – and worst of all, simply driving around New York – I can live without it.

So, when I get back there, you better believe I get behind the wheel of my mother’s car every chance I get. Love driving back there, despite the unignorable fact that drivers tend to be just as bad there, save there’s simply far less of them to deal with. Can’t begin to tell you of all the times I get tailgated doing 50 in a 45 zone, and this is only driving once every six weeks – if I had that happen to me all the time, I’d be murderous. I don’t know how people think life works. You ride my ass like that, I’m not going to speed up. I’m going to make it a point to you that you have no control over me. So either back off, or grow a set of balls and pass me out (which never seems to happen … I don’t get it … you’re a speed-demon badass … pass me out already … isn’t your middle name “Danger”?).

Her car only has a radio, which isn’t that much of a drag as there’s a pretty solid 70s station I always find. Invariably, this time of year, I often hear Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” on the radio, and there’s nothing like hearing that song riding home on a September night. Fuckin’ Seger rules! (Then again, I made the mistake of buying his new album … “ruled” might be more grammatically accurate.)

I also can’t help but notice a pox on the land in terms of McMansions springing up all over the place. I hate the sight of these things – the cheesy faux classical architecture and such. Just the most gaudy looking pieces of shit to blot out the American landscape in the past decade. About the only good thing I can say about them is people back there don’t make the houses take up every inch of the property, as they’re doing in the suburbs around here, which is just so mind-blowingly awful to see, you have to wonder if these people are mentally disturbed to wipe out their front and backyards to expand these trashy little fortresses.

In terms of drinks, forget it, I’ve really curtailed my use from visits in my 20s and 30s. There’s a real gestapo mentality in Pennsylvania regarding sobriety check points which I find borderline fascistic – whatever happened to cops doing their job and simply being alert to bad drivers on the highway? Forget about cutting back – the prospect of getting snared in one of these things makes me not want to drink at all – and I often don’t when I go back there.

But back in my 20s, christ, things got strange on a regular basis. We still had Lil’s Valley Tavern at the edge of our town, which had been a sleepy little redneck bar when we were growing up, but somehow caught on a semi-hip bar in the early 90s. It was fun to go out there on a Friday night, about a 30-second drive, and hang out, often getting blotto. (I remember the night I played air guitar on a pool cue to Night Ranger’s Greatest Hits on the jukebox. And damned if I didn’t buy the thing for $0.50 on when I got back to New York.)

If any of us had gotten DUIed driving the few hundred yards home, we would have deserved it. Hell, push came to shove, we could have walked home and been there in five minutes. (There was that infamous night I missed when someone’s headlights came across our neighbor JB taking a shit by the side of the road at two in the morning – apparently, too hammered and ready-to-go to make it home.) Most good drinking stories involve blood, feces and vomit – we’ve all got them, so I’ll spare you mine. Lil’s inexplicably shut down by the late 90s – probably more bad management than anything, as they were making money hand over fist. Used to think it would be cool to own a bar, but think about it, slow nights, spotty employees, serving alcoholic customers and just the constant buzz of people getting strange and often doing bad shit. That stops being cool after awhile.

More than anything, I just go back to relax and keep connected to that way of life. I remember being interviewed in college when I worked for the newspaper, someone asked me if I’d ever consider living in New York. I remember frowning and saying, “I don’t think I could ever live that way. It’s too intimidating.” Or something like that. And I guess it is intimidating at first. But you live here long enough, it gets relatively easy, although I’m looking down the road a piece and seeing myself having a very hard time with rental/property values here (i.e., they keep rising astronomically). All I knew back then was my home area in Pennsylvania, and a college town, State College, PA which, looking back, seems like a strange dream I had one night and have nearly forgotten. Again, I used to think, wouldn’t it be cool to live here the rest of my days. But then that scene in Breaking Away comes back to me, where the Cutters are sitting on a hill overlooking the Indiana stadium, watching the football team practice. And Mike, the failed quarterback, shakes his head and says, “Each year, all of us are going to keep getting older. And those guys down there, all these college kids, are going to stay the same age.” I suspect that’s pretty much how I’d feel about college-town life now.

(One vivid memory. In my junior year, I went home nearly every weekend – a two-hour drive straight through Pennsylvania on Route 80. I just liked going home! Suffered all the lectures of friends, blah, blah, blah, spread your wings and fly, must break that bond, etc., but it always made more sense to me to maintain that connection. Every Friday, I’d get my mostly humor column published in the newspaper, feel like a million bucks, then get in my yellow hornet station wagon, hit a convenience store on the edge of State College, getting one of those humongous Big Gulps of Coke, and driving straight through with, at that point, stuff like the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and The Replacements blasting from my shitty home-made speakers. One Friday, I went to a lawn party, where I knew no one and everyone knew who I was. So I basked in that cheap glory for awhile, then slipped away, and that particular time period, I was totally immersed in 60s soul music and had just dubbed one of those key Atlantic Rhythm & Blues collections (probably the 1965-66 two-album set) to cassette, put that thing on for my trip home, and had one of those revelatory night drives, hearing Sam and Dave, Otis, Aretha, etc. for the first time and really getting it. Man, that was a night.)

And when I’m back in Pennsylvania now, I can recall vestiges of being a teenager, and that was the only world I knew. Driving around at night. Blasting Frank Zappa and T. Rex from the cassette deck. Wondering what the hell to do. I drive those same roads now and still don’t know what the hell to do, but I’ve learned how to make money and support myself, so that sense of urgency no longer exists. What are you gonna’ do with your life? You’re going to live it, and chances are it’ll bear little resemblance to how you thought it was going to be when you were a teenager. I think I was picturing some type of Stephen King existence: mansions in New England, fame, money, begrudging respect, etc. But the only person living a Stephen King existence is Stephen King, and that poor bastard got run over by a van a few years ago and probably rattles when he walks now.

So, in the meantime, I’ve lived almost 20 years in New York, learned how to box, lost my father, had middling success as a writer, got real disillusioned with the writing world in general, made myself useful in many New York offices, walked away from big money a few times, as I had no urge to get an MBA, no matter who was paying for it, lived long enough to see a major revolution in music (MP3 files), embraced it, didn’t get married, fielded many heartfelt questions about being gay, never worried about not being married or gay, learned to stand my ground, developed a real grace under pressure that others notice, shut my fucking mouth and learned, turned into my father, turned into my mother, learned not to fear this, gladly embraced it, moved with time instead of stopping to worry, as time never stops, and the smart thing is to keep moving with it until you stop, just now catching glimpses of what it really means to be old, learned to laugh at 25-year-olds who whine about feeling old, made some dumb mistakes, made some smart ones, learned how to save money, threw a lot away on stupid shit, but apparently nowhere near as much as your average American, lived debt free after sinking the college loan in my mid-20s, never got as far as I thought I would, never self destructed, found a new reality that I can stay sane and healthy in, figured what the fuck, run with it, this is all that really matters, don’t worry about my life, because I don’t.

An epic? Hardly – probably a lot of the same bullshit you’re going through, or will go through. These are the kind of random thoughts that flash through my head when I’m driving down some country lane back there, hopefully without some neurotic shithead riding my ass like I was driving on four flats. There’s some strange sort of comfort in taking stock on those roads, and it always relaxes me, which is purely the effect of being in a place I was born and raised in. When people ask where I’m from, I often answer, the middle of nowhere, as they’ve never heard of any of the small towns between Reading and Scranton. I like being from the middle of nowhere, and I like going back to nowhere. Neil Young has a great song called “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” which is about all the bullshit of living in Los Angeles, and it could just as easily apply to New York. Too many boring-assed, uninspired people hitch a free ride on New York’s image. Nobody does that with nowhere.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

9/11 Remembrance

I wont’ be forgetting that day any time soon, or the weeks and months afterwards when this city was dealt a harsh blow. That fall, I wrote a lot about it – many little tidbits about New York life that appeared in the NYPress, some of them blasts against the New York Times Style section, which was running rampant with truly awful stories, basically media vampires trying to portray themselves as people with souls. Not to stand in judgment – but I can smell bullshit a mile away. And many of the stories at that time reeked of it, totally lacking in sincerity or gravity, people who didn't care about anything suggesting the exact opposite.

Between all that bullshit, a lot of real stuff was going on, and it was interesting. One piece I wrote at that time really stands out – The Portraits of Grief Experiment in If you follow the link, the story explains itself. I also wrote a basic, day-to-day diary of what life was like in the immediate aftermath, but can’t seem to track it down online – email me if you want a PDF copy. Another piece that stands out was a paragraph I did for the NYPress, describing the effect of being downtown for the first time since that happened – probably late October of 2001. I went down to J&R Music World, just to go more than anything, as it was literally in the shadow of the old World Trade Center towers. And seeing those huge arc lights in use at that time to clear out the pit. The sun had just gone down, the streets were empty and still stank with that acrid smell from that day. And I recalled how seeing those lights reminded me of when my brother and I went to high-school football games back home in near-by towns, often the only way to find the stadium was to look in the night sky as we drove around and try to find the same kind of arc lights being used for demolition in the pit.

What a horrible time that was. But I learned a lot after that, especially after Dad passed on in the winter of 2004. And that’s we all got shit to deal with, and his passing means more to me than all this lousy 9/11 stuff. I didn’t know it at that time, or have any frame of reference to compare. But when you lose a family member, whatever the circumstance, that’s going to register far more harshly than an event like 9/11, assuming you lost no one that day. Of course, millions of people all over the world have died since 9/11, most of natural causes, others not. And for each of those people, you’re going to find a few people who have that space to deal with. I’ve been watching all this 9/11 stuff on TV over the past week, and all I can think is, this is nice, but that was a long time ago, and a lot of us had other shit dropped on us in the mean time, or had other shit before this that resonates more strongly now, simply because it’s personal.

But 9/11 was just one of those events – I’m hoping a “once in a lifetime” sort of thing for us. I won’t be forgetting the truly shitty, wounded way I felt that day, or for months afterwards. But life went on, and I can see that we’re all going to have these emotional gunshot wounds in our lives, parents dying, friends dying, siblings dying, to a point in our lives where very few people we know will be left alive. And then we’ll become aware of our own time coming, and from what I saw of Dad on his death bed, that’s a rough place to be. The point being that the first half of your life is relatively death-free, and the last will be all of us dealing with this. And I can see it’s going to be a balancing act between remembering those who have gone accordingly, and learning how to let them go. A lot of strange stuff, some comforting, some not, still swirls around in that empty space.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe (Part 2)

So, the story picks up again with John S., his wasted friend Rich and I watching Rich's idiotic ex-wife dancing on a lawn like a headless chicken in Dewey Beach, Delaware: Asshole of the Universe. Just watching that woman move, I could see the Dewey Beach partyville ethic expressed in her being: awkward, shameless, Wonder Bread and way too wasted for its own good.

Another thing occurred to me, especially with this lawn party. I was meeting an inordinate number of people from Washington DC and its surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland. And these folks spooked me. Being from DC, they had a big-city attitude, mixed with that special sort of arrogance you get only from people who work in political or governmental jobs. If you’ve never seen the TV series West Wing – and if you’re one of those special people, I congratulate you on your superior taste – you can see all the characters have this sort of brusque, condescending tone about them that would be funny, I guess, if they stopped long enough to laugh, which they can’t, man, because they’re saving mankind with Martin Sheen, while walking through a dimly-lit hallway, and then a burst of sunlight, and then a dimly-lit hallway, and then a burst of sunlight, etc. Imagine these people drunk and trying in vain to relax, and you get another aspect of why Dewey Beach is so desperately fucked up. It’s crawling with these insincere DC vampires, who drive a long way to be just as uptight and annoying as they are in whatever foo-foo Georgetown watering hole they favor.

After about an hour of this torture, John suggested a drive over to Rehoboth Beach, where “all the fags and families go on weekends.” I had heard Rehoboth was a legendary “fag” beach, along the lines of Fire Island. And while I’m certain there are designated bars there and such where that fag vibe is overbearing, for the most part what I saw driving and walking around there for an hour felt like heaven compared to Dewey Beach, Delaware: Asshole of the Universe. There were gay couples all over the place, and families having dinner. And they weren’t drunk off their asses and roaming around in packs like eternal frat boys wandering a circle of hell. The worst that happened to us was a bunch of cute guys in a jeep stopped and blew their horn at us, but we played hard to get.

John tired of Rehoboth quickly, and we made the short trek back. Dewey Beach, Delaware: Asshole of the Universe is a town that normally has a population of about 300 that balloons to about 30,000 on summer weekends. And the town is geared towards servicing 300 people in terms of the highways and such. So every time you get in a car, you’re automatically in a traffic jam, and chances are good you’ll have a very hard time parking again. If you’ve rented a parking space, as many people do, someone will probably be parked in it, and it will take forever to get the local cops to ticket and/or get that car out of your space.

So, we got back around sundown, and at that point, I was exhausted, going on about three hours sleep in the past 24 hours. We grabbed a bite to eat at the local legendary burger place, where the owner treats everyone like an asshole, and the burgers are nothing to write home about. As darkness fell, we did what most people do all day there: the bar crawl. Once again, every place we went was jammed with shitty dance music blasting away at ear-splitting volume. By about 10:00, I told John, look, I got to go back to hell house and crash, I’ve had it.

I forgot to mention, but when we were back in the house in that wondrous afternoon time, I took that "alone" time to do my laundry – the only chance I had all weekend to do my normal laundry load. Nobody was around, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Well, as people started filtering back in, one of the harpies in the share with John flipped her lid when she found out I did one washer load of laundry. No reason why. Hadn’t broken any rules. She was just peeved that a house guest did something normal. I can’t recall exactly what I said to her, but there was a threat of physical violence, and she recognized it. Probably something like, “If you don’t stop bothering me for no good reason, I’m going to knock you the fuck out.” You’ll have to forgive me – I tend to grow more eloquent with anger. But at that point, I’d had it with the pig Delaware attitude. I was literally on the verge of attacking someone.

So, at 10:00, I take the chance and go back to the house. After I threatened that woman in the afternoon, for some odd reason, she became very nice and suggested that John and I should get space in one of the bedrooms on Saturday night, which would probably mean both of us on the floor while some rude, drunk skank slept on the bed. The house was empty when I got back. I went up to the room we were promised, closed the door, turned off the light, lie down on the bed and tried to sleep, which was impossible with the noise level of drunken parties and Skynyrd blaring from every house on the block. I managed to slip into a fitful half sleep.

I can’t recall what time it was. Probably around one or two in the morning. House still empty. When I heard banging come up the steps. A man and a woman’s voices. Drunk. Laughing. The door slammed open and the lights went on. I pretended I was asleep, but discretely peeked out through half-closed eye lids.

It was Connie and her boyfriend. Connie was a rotten cunt – there, I said it. Sorry to use the “c word” – if you’re offended, I apologize. But Connie was a rotten cunt – a walking black cloud of negativity, bad vibes and just an open sore of a human being. Every second I spent around this woman, it was like a scene from The Exorcist, where the room goes ice cold, then smells like sulphur, and some psychic force cries “Get out!” in backwards Latin. Understand that there was one nice woman in the house sharing with John, and it’s to my discredit that I can’t remember her name. The other handful were just awful people – how John got to know them, I can’t recall. How he ever trusted to them to the point where he agreed to a summer share with them, that’s a black mark on his character for the rest of his days.

“Who the fuck is that sleeping my bed?” she cried out.

I couldn’t believe it – this was like being in a profane version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Only it was Sane Man and the Multitude of Delaware Pricks in my case. Again, I’d pretty much had it. I snapped my eyes open, bolted out of the bed and got straight into Connie’s homely Italian face.

“I’m sleeping in your bed, asshole! What are you going to do about it? Kick me out? Have your faggot boyfriend kick my ass? Let’s go, bitch! I’ll fight both of you right now!”

To the boyfriend’s credit, he kept a cool head. Actually, he looked kind of scared, too. He knew Connie positioned herself as some sort of bad ass, and now she was being called out on it. Also understand, I can count on one hand the times where I got this nuts to the point of violence, two of them occurring that weekend. This is what sleep deprivation and being placed in a hostile environment will do to otherwise sane people.

“Oh. I’m sorry. We’ll get another room,” she murmured. I could see she was about to cry. Maybe it was that sort of thing where you had to violently confront these people to get them to understand just how far gone their manners were? I don’t know. Whatever it was, it worked. If I’d known this sooner, I would have smashed a beer bottle first thing Friday night and put it into Connie’s face -- like a new guy in prison kicking someone's ass so he doesn't become someone's bitch.

Connie and her man quietly shut the door. But that wasn’t the end of it. For about the next half hour, I could hear her sobbing and whining downstairs. I guess she was too freaked out to go to another room. The game plan was probably for those two to come back to an empty house and fuck, but I inadvertently rained on that parade. But since I went psycho on her, that took her out of her game, and all that was left to do was mutter recriminations and vague threats out of my presence. I could hear stuff like “I’m going to get that asshole kicked out” and such. To which I thought, oh, please try that, honey, please try. And you better hurry, because I’m out of here in a few hours, and if I ever see you again, it will be because I lived a wrong life and ended up with you sticking a pitchfork in my ass somewhere in hell.

So I floundered around in that weird sort of dream state for awhile. Eventually, probably around four in the morning, John got back. He was laughing his ass off. Apparently, he had run into Connie downstairs and got the lowdown on what had happened. He was in heaven, as he couldn’t stand her. No one could, but he was one of the few people in the house who was up front about it. We had that whole room to ourselves that night. And we sat around laughing our asses off like a pair of grave diggers sharing a bottle of whiskey. I just couldn’t believe what he had gotten himself into. And every now and then, I’d call out “That cunt, Connie!” in my loudest voice to let her know we were talking about her. John wasn’t worried about getting kicked out of the house, which he would have welcomed at that point, especially if he got his money back.

This went on until about 5:30 in the morning, at which time we decided it was in our best interests to sneak out, get some roadside breakfast about 30 miles up the road, then make a straight shot back to Wilmington so I could get an afternoon train back to New York. This is pretty much what happened. When we got downstairs, Connie and her sad boyfriend were sound asleep, as was everyone else. We ran into Butch in the driveway, and he shook our hands and was actually pretty pleasant. A nice way to leave. When we stopped at the roadside place, John did what he had to do: shook me down for $40, the fee all house guests had to pay. A nice little side business they had going to help them all get money back on their original investment. Let’s say a minimum of ten guests a weekend? That was $400, and I gather that most of these people, when you got right down to it, were doing these hellhole weekends for free – minus the cost of gas, food and, most importantly, drug and alcohol intake. But theoretically, they could all make back their nut in terms of the original four-figure sum they all laid down for the house in the spring.

This wasn’t the last time I’d see Dewey Beach. The next summer when I visited John, he was living in New Castle, Delaware: Not the Asshole of the Universe. And he had just leased a jeep and wanted to road trip. So we took the bridge outside of New Castle into New Jersey, drove straight across those wicked pine barrens and hit that stretch of primo Jersey shore resort towns south of Atlantic City. It was a sunny day, and we both got burned before investing in some sun-tan lotion in Avalon.

By the time we hit the Jersey-Delaware ferry in Cape May, I was red as a beet. I hadn’t looked in a mirror in a long time either. That ferry ride was wonderful – basically a nice long boat ride while you sun on a deck. When I came in off the deck, this teenage kid blurted out, “Look out! Here comes the Heat Miser!” He seemed to be talking about me, but I couldn’t tell. I mentioned it to John, and he started laughing his ass off. That’s when I saw myself in a window – burnt cherry red with my hair standing straight up from riding in a jeep for about three hours. The little bastard, he was right, and I couldn’t help laughing at myself.

But we got off the ferry in Lewes Beach, a much more sedate Delaware shore town where John eventually lived for a few years before moving back to Wilmington, and then down to Florida to be closer to his parents who had retired there a year or so earlier. Haven’t spoken to him in years over some silly falling out we had around one of our friend’s wedding, but he did send a nice card to my Mom when he learned my father had passed on. I know John and his dad are big fans of reading our home county Pennsylvania newspaper online for the obituary section.

But we spent that afternoon in Dewey Beach, and it was fine. I knew it was afternoon lull time from the previous year, when most people are just getting up, lazing around cramped houses with hangovers and awkward conversations with strangers. I could see that the right way to do Dewey Beach, Delaware: Asshole of the Universe, or any shore town, assuming you aren’t lucky or rich enough to have a house to yourself, is to simply drive there early on a Saturday morning, spend all day at the beach, then drive back Saturday night, foregoing any predictable drinking games at shitty, over-priced bars and missing the horrible Sunday night traffic jam. I strongly doubt I’ll ever lay eyes again on that godforsaken town, and not so sure I’ll ever pass through Delaware again. If I want to be treated like a worthless asshole, you better believe I can do it for free here in New York.

Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe (Part 1)

I’ve never been much for the beach-house scene. In New York, that implies going in on a summer rental of a 3-4 bedroom house in Long Island or New Jersey, for some extortionate five-figure sum, with literally dozens of other people, most of them strangers, who arrange a strict “every other weekend” schedule in which the renters can or cannot use the house with guests, and the number of guests fluctuates wildly so that a dozen or so people are invariably camped out on the living-room floor in sleeping bags. A majority of those people will be drunk and ornery.

The last and only time I went on a beach house weekend was back in the early 90s, with old pal John S., who lived in Wilmington, Delaware and had a summer share with a dozen other people in Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe. I’d trademark that delineation if I could, because as far as I’m concerned, forget about the Bronx, or Beirut, or the slums of Rio, or Fallujah. Dewey Beach, Delaware is the asshole of the universe.

What was I then – 27, 28? Thereabouts. Late 20s, which may be the most volatile time in most adults’ lives, when they get it into their heads that everything must happen by 30, that success or failure is determined at that age, and if not reached by that point, then something must really be wrong in their lives. This, of course, is thanks to our deranged youth-oriented culture which has zero understanding of reality or passing time. Never trust anyone over 30? The folks who came up with that bon mot will die of old age soon, god willing, if all the coke they did over the years doesn’t clog their arteries first. (Side note: I much more think about life as an ongoing series of small successes and failures, no matter what age you are. I’ve met way too many people in New York whose professional lives are radically successful, which is all they’re judged by, while their personal lives are rubble, and a lot more indicative of the real person.)

Thirty is also the mating age. Why guys fall for that shit, I don’t know, whereas I can see women wanting to cash in their chips before the dew is off the lily. Thus, any time you get people together hovering around that 30-year mark, you get a group who are still teenagers in their minds, very old teenagers, but have been socked with elements of the adult world so that they’re filled with a sufficient amount of fear to view 30 as an artificial dividing line between youth and adulthood, when there really are no dividing lines, just a whole bunch of experiences and choices (many of them bad) one has to glean some sort of knowledge from.

Throw in alcohol abuse, the beach and people who want good times greater than their dollar value, and you have Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe. I’d imagine a summer share set-up in any resort town tends to be a dice roll, even if you know the parties involved. My experience that weekend showed me that the type of folks who go for the “summer beach share” scene are party people, drink too much, stay out all night, insert hard-living cliché here. If they lived alone, no big deal, but put them in a house with a dozen other strangers, most of them with the same mindset, and you get a very bad scene.

This was what I walked into with John that summer. The strange thing was, he knew I’d hate it, but I think he wanted to show me the burning hell he had foolishly signed on for earlier that spring so that I could understand why he was so depressed. He was working one of those shitty computer support jobs that pays very well, but demands a beeper (at that time – surely a cellphone now) that invariably goes off Saturday night and requires one to make it into work to help some schlub on midnight shift who could fix the computer problem by turning the machine off and on again. So he had that draggy, overtime kind of existence during the week, followed by weekends where he’s always tense in a house full of drunken strangers for the most part, living like a bunch of punk kids who just ran away from home.

Just getting there was a hassle. John lived in Wilmington, which I got to via Amtrak train from New York, and normally that alone would be a good hike for me – and we had plenty of good visits just doing that, as Wilmington isn’t a bad town at all. But from there, we had to drive south through Delaware to the very southern tip, which took a few hours. Don’t know if you’ve ever driven through Delaware, but it’s like Kansas without the cornfields: mile after mile of farms and small wooded areas once you get outside the major cities. On top of which, for this trip there was a light drizzle the entire way and bad traffic once we got halfway through the state.

So we got there later on a Friday night – about 10:00 as opposed to 8:00. Admittedly, when we first got there, it wasn’t so bad walking into the small beach house. A few people were hanging out, playing cards and drinking at a table in the kitchen, and they were friendly enough. I thought, “Well, the rain must have scared a bunch of people away, this should be a fun weekend.”

We put our stuff in a corner of the living room and headed out for some drinks. There was very much a college-town vibe to Dewey Beach – college town in the midst of a Division I-A football game. Drunken people everywhere – and not kids, adults anywhere from their mid-20s to their 40s. Wandering around in packs. I remember that this wasn’t unusual at Penn State, especially on a football weekend. The thing was, I was almost a decade away from that sort of vibe, and it now struck me as being lame, like I was at a very bad party that should have ended a long, long time ago. You get that many drunken people stumbling around, and stupid shit happens, be it meaningless fights, various displays of beer muscles, girls getting way too slutty for their own good, guys just acting like total goons because they’re hammered and have an audience, etc.

What really depressed me was half a block away, we came across a hotel with an outdoor area for bands to play. According the marquee, Marshall Crenshaw was playing there that night, and I could hear the echoes of some bopping, rockabilly type song playing. All I could think was, “Marshall, you poor fuck, it comes to this, playing a hotel in Dewey Beach, Delaware in 1998.” Then again, most of his audience was so falling-down drunk, he probably could have played “Freebird” on a kazoo all-night long and received standing ovations.

John and I ended up in some nondescript shore-town bar that, of course, was jam-packed. One of his housemates was there, and we got into a vacuous, “adult” conversation about real estate – always a mistake, because the person starting a conversation like that is looking to rub your nose in shit. Some of the folks in John’s house seemed to be like this – yuppies in training, the LaCoste knit shirt/country club crew. Not my kind of folk! Luckily, one of the most obnoxious people John knew in Delaware, this strange, extremely wealthy guy named P.J. who made all his money shaking down working-class folks on high-interest loans and credit-card payments, wasn’t in his house – but we’d see him off-and-on all weekend. To me, the guy was obviously gay – it wasn’t just the pictures of bare-chested male models he kept on his refrigerator (claiming they gave him inspiration to lose weight). He was gay – but in his mind, he was a young gun on a prowl for a wife. His denied sexuality was a non-issue, especially compared to the spoiled rich kid vibe this guy oozed like chronic flatulence. James Spader would have a field day playing him in a movie.

So, we spent the requisite few hours crammed into this bar, then decided to call it a night. When we went back to the house at about 2:00, we found it jammed with people, most of them total strangers to John. Some passed out, others drunkenly wailing, some fighting. This was bed time. And this is how bed time is when you’re dealing with a bunch of spoiled brats ripped to the tits on $7.00 beers. I just couldn’t believe the scene. We’d have to sleep on the living-room floor in the area where we flopped out our personal stuff upon arriving. Every bed was taken, the floors of the bedrooms were taken, the little screened-in porch was taken, leaving only the living room and kitchen for people to sack out on. John said he shared the house with about five other people – there were about 20 people in the house that night.

I’m a light sleeper to begin with – put me in this kind of set-up, and forget it, I got about two hours sleep, if that. People farting in their sleep. Getting up to piss or puke every 15 minutes. Some people having strange drunken conversations with each other in the dark. Like I said earlier, if I had been a kid in a punk-rock band, this would all be very cool. For a 28-year-old guy who thought he was coming to a beach house with a few people casually hanging out – and all sleeping in beds – it was a bit of a shock.

I think I started nodding off in earnest about 6:00 in the morning. The house was finally quiet as the sun was rising. At which time, I heard someone stomping around upstairs. He takes what has to be the loudest piss I’ve ever heard – it was like he had a garden hose with a nozzle pointing into the toilet. He farted and burped all the while. He stomped down the stairs. I could see this guy was stone white trash – probably late 30s, scraggly-looking, forearm tattoos, smoking. He stomped across open patches of the living-room floor and kitchen so he could slam-dunk an empty Bud can into the trash. He slammed out the kitchen door. About the only thing he didn’t do was crash two trashcan lids together like cymbals.

John later told me this was Butch – one of the more normal house members. Something I haven’t mentioned about Delaware, and something Delawarians will either deny or hate me for. But Delaware has to be one of the unfriendliest states I’ve ever been in – and I can say this after dealing with the worst New York City pricks you can imagine for the past 20 years. I can’t vouch for southern or middle Delaware – they could be fine for all I know. But northern Delaware, which is where all these beach-house people were from, has a really odd vibe to it. “Unfriendly” might be too strong a word – “prickly” might be better. And I suspect it’s because there are so many corporate headquarters and such centered around Wilmington (because Delaware has such lax tax laws for corporations) that this corporate vibe seeps into the every-day fabric of life for people living there. Probably no different from any Westchester County suburb in New York. But every time I would visit John, I’d find myself thinking, “What is it with people around here? Why are they so rude?”

And that was Butch, even though he was a factory worker. How he got tied in with John’s crew, I have no idea. I’d see Butch all weekend, stalking around, grunting at people, smoking and staring at the sky like a caveman waiting for a pterodactyl to swoop down and snatch him away. This was fun for him? He looked like he’d be better off drilling holes in his skull. The guy didn’t once go to the beach. All he did was drink and smoke. John and I were the only two people in the house who actually went to the beach which, as far as I was concerned, was the only reason to be there. You could be a drunken, miserable prick for free at home just as easily as you could paying money for a beach house.

Since Butch had me wide awake – amazingly, everyone else seemed to sleep through his barrage – I decided to slip out of the house and go running on the beach. This was the best decision I made all weekend. It was a hazy/sunny day, and I gave myself a good 5-mile run along the shoreline, taking time afterwards to just sit there and take it all in.

When I came back, a few more people were up, sitting around the kitchen table. One of them was a bleached-blonde floozy, a really hammered looking woman, clearly still drunk from the night before, smoking. She takes one look at me and sarcastically blurts out, “Who the fuck is that?” loud enough for me to hear.

Understand that this house was filled with people she didn’t know. John would later tell me he didn’t know who she was, and he’d been there every weekend for the past month. She turned out to be a house guest, just like me, and a total fucking pig to boot.

I walked over to the table and introduced myself.

“My name is Bill. I’m a friend of John’s.”

I pointed to him sleeping on the floor.

“John’s one of the few people here who has a share in the house. Are you one of those people, too?”

I was talking at her like she was a bank teller, but I figured what the hell, if you’re going to lay this ugly Delaware charm on me, I’m giving it back in spades. She explained that no, she wasn’t, but she was tired of all these people showing up she didn’t know. Luckily, John got up right then, and he knew a few of the people at the table. I took him aside and told him we needed to get the hell out of there, get some breakfast and hit the beach.

Which we did. And that part of the trip was also good – just body surfing and such most of the day, lazing on the beach, I managed to get about another hour of sleep. The beaches in Delaware are no great shakes. That area of water is basically a very large bay with New Jersey on the other side. As a result, the water is pretty tepid and lifeless – you probably get better waves on one of the Great Lakes. Still, the beach is the beach no matter where you are, and this was far better than hanging around a bunch of strange drunken bastards.

Coming back to the house was possibly the epiphany of the weekend. We got back around 3:00 pm, and the house was empty. Bathed in sunlight. I guess that was about the time all the drunks had finally woken up and decided to go out and get something to eat, or maybe start drinking again. In any event, we had the place to ourselves, and just sitting around the living room on a nice shore-town Saturday afternoon, I could easily see the attraction of having a beach house. The catch being you had to be rich to do this for yourself, and we had no chance of having an entire weekend this peaceful and normal.

All this time, John is gauging my emotions, and I’m making no bones about them. I tell him his beach house is filled with a bunch of miserable alcoholics, and I’d be suicidal if I had to spend all my spare time on weekends around such a bunch of pricks. I think he was looking for that sort of confirmation from a friend, and I gave it to him, both barrels. The guy wasn’t happy to begin with, and placing himself in this sort of environment every weekend, and paying good money to do so, wasn’t helping matters any. He seemed relieved to hear this. And he knew that I was pissed off that I’d be living like an animal all weekend. I think we both sensed that the beach and these few minutes sitting around an empty house were about as good as it was going to get.

Sure enough, people started filtering back in, so John took me to a lawn party he had been invited to. Where we ran into his pal Rich, who was drunk off his ass in the mid-afternoon, probably blasted on coke, too. But having no fun … because his ex-wife was there, dancing up a storm. Rich was a good guy – he had a really likable personality and was one of the few people John hung around that I could actually stomach. But to see how hang-dog he was in the presence of his ex-wife. Who was every over-rated suburban harpy you’ve ever met rolled into one. Not a total zero of a woman, but deeply average looking, not very intelligent, and totally bereft of personality in that sparkling Delaware way. She told us she was a dancing queen and was going to dance all night long. The thing was, I’ve seen people on crutches with better moves – picture that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine tries to dance. She was awful, and totally in the dark about how awful she was. And to see Rich pining for a woman this clueless was painful. No wonder he was blasted out of his mind every waking hour. He just couldn’t see life clearly. Not that any of us can, but I’d cut off one of my hands before I lost one minute of sleep over a woman like his ex-wife.