Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Woods

Got a nice jolt from the New York Sanitation Department yesterday. Monday (and Thursday) is garbage pick-up day in my area, and sure enough, on Friday I went out and swept up a shitload of leaves. I’m talking four garbage bags each over the past two weeks. (Before October, I usually fill up one bag every two weeks.) The garbage crew picked up last week’s bags, no problem. Yesterday, they just sat there. The landlord was freaking out: “A-Billy, why they no take the leaves? I pay my taxes. I pay A LOT of taxes. Why they no take the leaves?”

Of course, I didn’t know … until she showed me a flyer she had stuffed in her doorway from the week before. A notice from the NYC Department of Sanitation stating that for the next few weeks, through early December, there would only be two pick-up days for leaves, and the leaves had to be deposited in special biodegradable paper bags they were supposedly giving out (I haven’t seen any), or you could buy them at a designated list of hardware/department stores. Any leaves in any other type of bag (you know, like the black plastic kind that are sold as such in supermarkets all over the country and recognized as such by sanitation departments all over the country, too) would not be collected during this time period.

What a screw job. I’m bagging four loads every week the past few weeks – I’ll do roughly the same amount this weekend, as we had near tsunami conditions on Saturday that brought down another ton of leaves. Come their first pick up in mid-November, I’m going to have literally about 20 of those disposable paper bags of leaves. These assholes don’t seem to realize the sidewalk running along my landlord’s property is like some bizarre leaf graveyard. Must be the configuration of the buildings and the wind patterns, but it tends to collect a lot of leaves, and not just from her trees. And as she’s learned the hard way, if I don’t clean them up in a timely manner, she stands to be fined $100 for starters.

So, later today, I’ll check out K Mart in Manhattan and see if I can track down these assholic paper bags. Guess we’ll have to store them in her little tool shed, too, as I imagine the bags will come apart in the rain. What a load of shit. Really – the amount people pay in property taxes around here, and the city is pulling nonsense like this.

It’s a bit easier back in Pennsylvania. Last year, brother J, who had let the leaves go for a bit in November, simply got out a day or two before Thanksgiving, swept up what must have been about eight or nine pick-up truck loads of leaves (an unbelievable amount) and dumped them in a strange non-restricted area between the graveyard on the hill and the township building on the edge of the woods. Seeing as how we didn’t know if this was legal or not (we’ve since learned that it is), every time we saw a car anywhere near the cemetery, we held out breath. We shouldn’t have. If I’d seen two pissed-off looking guys in a pick-up truck engaged in what could have been a questionable dumping practice, I’d pretty much leave them alone and get the hell away from them.

I’m not complaining about the practice of raking up leaves – I love doing this. Any sort of finite manual labor that isn’t an every-day occurrence is really a pleasurable, zen-like experience. A job is put in front of you. You do it. You do it well. It keeps you occupied and gives your body a tolerable workout. And when you’re done, you can look back over what you’ve done and see you’ve made a huge difference. How many things in life are that straightforward? And with New York, it keeps me connected to the land in a very real way: I’m made privy to nature at work and have to clean up after it. I gather a lot of apartment dwellers here lose that association, if they ever had it, and if you ask me, it fucks up their heads (albeit just another bullet point on a very long list).

I’ve been reading a book recently on the West Memphis 3 – those poor-ass kids in Arkansas in the early 90s who got railroaded into child murder charges based on the fact that they were simply weird outsider kids toying with witchcraft and such, and paid a heavy price for not knowing their rights and dealing with what must be a truly foul judicial system in that state. I don’t like the author’s bent – from the get-go, she clearly positions the wacky father of one of the kids as a more deserving suspect, although from what I know of the case, there’s not much to suggest that he was guilty of anything either, save being weird, stupid and trashy. But the kids were clearly railroaded. It seems that the town they were killed in is a major crossroads in the south, with tons of interstate and drug traffic, the place the kids were killed just a few hundred yards from truck stops and such, so who knows what really happened.

What does this have to do with leaves? Well, not much, save the kids were killed in one of those odd wooded areas sandwiched between rural development and an interstate highway, called Robin Hood’s woods by the kids. And I can deeply relate to how those kids who were killed must have felt about that place, even though on a map it appears to take up less than a quarter of mile. This was the place where young kids would play army, or cowboys and indians, or hide-and-seek, or simply sit around telling ghost stories. It was far enough away from home that they felt isolated, and close enough that they could run through the woods and be home in a matter of minutes. I’m sure older kids would congregate there, too, late at night, to drink in the woods, get high, construct the legend of their teenage outlaw world, revel in that sense of being alone in the woods at night. Pretty damn convenient, too – as stated, far enough away to feel isolated from the adult world, close enough to make a mad dash and be back in civilization.

I liked growing up with that sense of woods. We always played there as kids, just seemed like more of an adventure. The few times we’d see adults in those woods, it always felt odd. If they weren’t hunters, the immediate thought was, “What the hell are you doing in here?” Only kids went into the woods, where they’d engage in some fantastical world, or at least revel in the fact that we were far away from the watchful eyes of adults. Of course, we’d never go into the woods at night – it just seemed too frightening and risky. Even now I’d have to ask myself what anyone is doing in the woods at night – unless they're camping, there’s just no reason to be there that can be any good.

One set of woods we had (it’s still there) was surrounding the cemeteries on the hill, leading into a very large ridge – that part of Pennsylvania is all ridges and valleys, the ridges not quite high enough to be mountains, but high enough to be a daunting hike. We’d climb “the mountain” usually about once a year, and it was always a thrill to stand at the top of the ridge and look down on our small town. The climb generally took about an hour – I know guys who hunt who make these sort of climbs all the time, and I gather part of the attraction of hunting is simply getting out in the woods like kids do and enjoying that same sense of liberation. We’d find weird shit up there – kites we had lost the previous spring, organized rock formations that looked like barriers from the civil war, etc. It was taboo to head down the other side, which contained mined coal veins, thus the potential to fall into deep pits and holes that could be deadly. Besides which, and this always freaked me out, a town that we had to take a fairly serpentine route to via the highway was just over the opposite side of our ridge. It didn’t make any sense in my child’s mind, although a simple look at a map would have shown me this. This is where the phrase “as the crow flies” started making sense to me. Although the only time I saw crows, they were sitting on wooden-post fences or eating roadkill on the highway.

The other woods were on the other side of town: Scoutland. Named so because it had once been a wooded area that the Boy Scouts used for their training. (Never went for the Boy Scouts – seemed kind of pointless, and we all thought the uniforms were gay. By the same token, kids who did go for the Scouts had a mind-blowing sense of how to survive in the woods that most of us never really had as country kids.) This area was enormous, at least a few square miles, filled with bicycle and mini-bike trails, with a few decrepit log cabins and a water house over a spring pouring fresh water into a stream. Really a fantastical place for kids – we’d spend a lot of time there riding bikes and such. I gather kids, for the most part, are rarely allowed to roam that free these days. But our parents were glad to get us out of their hair for a good few hours, and if they needed us, they knew they could drive over to Scoutland, park at the entrance, yell out our names, and we’d come riding out on our 21-inch, banana-seat Huffies.

I can only imagine how devastating it would have been to have one or a few of us molested and/or killed in a place like Scoutland – and it would have been easy enough to have happened. Again, kids go to these places for that sense of isolation from adults, to create their own world in the woods. Most of this involved bicycles. I can still recall Brother J and I, and a few other kids, playing Evil Knievel on the porch of one of those abandoned cabins. The idea was to pedal like crazy down the 30-foot long porch, ride off the edge and gracefully glide down to the flat drop-off gully about eight feet below, landing perfectly like Evil would in his Elvis-style jumpsuit and cape. Well, J was the first go. I’ll never forget the site of him on his bike, careening off the edge of the porch, suspended in mid-air momentarily, then him and the bike dropping like a rock out of sight, the sound of a huge crash and grunt, running over, and seeing J on his back, bike on top of him in a tangled wreck. Needless to say, no one ever tried that again.

I never participated in the following, because my parents (wisely) never allowed me to have a BB gun, but a bunch of the kids in our neighborhood growing up got in the habit of having killing contests in Scoutland with birds and squirrels – simply who could shoot the most with their BB guns. This was pretty reprehensible stuff, and even if I had BB gun, I don’t think I would have gone for this, as my parents taught me never to kill anything unless you were going to eat it. But that’s how kids were back then, and a lot of the guys had kill counts in the dozens. I’m surprised none of them have gone onto Jeffrey Dahmer-style infamy, as killing small animals in this fashion is one of those hallmarks used to identify psycho killers.

Teenagers have a much more devious view of the woods, but I think the concept of escape is still the same. I think one of the biggest differences between child and adulthood is that sense of escape. As an adult, you ask yourself, where am I escaping to – there really is nowhere to escape, whatever I’m doing with my life, it’s going to follow me to whatever or wherever I escape to, and chances are, this new place might not be any better than where I’m at now. But as a kid, you escape all the time, and that sense of leaving behind the world you’d known is very real and seems like a logical choice. The simple act of running when you’ve done something wrong. We broke the window. Run! They’ll never know it was us if we run away! We can escape our fate! (Of course, who the fuck else is going to be responsible for a broken window when minutes earlier there was a bunch of kids playing baseball, and there’s a baseball in the living room that just came through the window. But kids don’t possess that sort of rational view of the world.)

I’ve been to a few drinking parties in the woods, but avoided them for the most part, because they were easy targets for the cops to bust. One, some kid would be blasting, say AC/DC or Ozzy, from his car stereo, two, you’d have a lot of drunk and/or stoned kids yelling and making way too much noise. Again, kids seem to think they’ve escaped the world, not realizing they’re only a few hundred yards from someone’s backyard, and that someone is getting pissed off that kids are partying at midnight in the woods again. I never knew if it was a case that the kids were so dumb they didn’t realize they were being so loud and obvious, or if they secretly wanted to be caught by the cops.

And strange shit would sometimes happen in the woods. There’s the oft-told story of a high-school acquaintance of mine, KN, who killed himself at a party in the woods. He had been depressed over losing his girlfriend, was at this party in the woods, uttered was then the enigmatic word“Cheeseballs,” then shot himself in the head with a handgun. (Please note: lots of kids who partied in the woods when I was growing up came from families of hunters and would have easy access to all sort of firearms, which they’d sometimes take with them to parties in the woods. Last people on earth I’d want to deal with are stoned teenagers with guns.) I learned recently that “cheeseballs” was a pet name he used for his ex-girlfriend, thus the last word out of his mouth. Like finding out what Citizen Kane meant with “rosebud.” For years, very few people knew that about KN, and thought the guy had simply lost his mind. Now we know it was a broken heart, and bad combination of alcohol and a loaded gun.

A girl a few grades behind me got run over when she was stoned and lying behind a car that accidentally backed up over her. Popped her eyes out and broke her legs.

Neighbor JB got shot in the neck as a teenager while hunting with a bunch of friends, apparently all drunk, one of them mistaking him for a deer. I can still recall my mother telling me this and immediately assuming he was dead. But he lived, very luckily did not bleed to death, and has lifelong stitches on his neck to remind him of this strange, unfortunate event.

Brother M got shot on the back of hand while walking in the woods in broad daylight during small-game season in the fall. I can still recall the large red, bloody lump – it appeared he has just been grazed. But you have to wonder what kind of asshole would shoot at a sound in the woods, and not an actual form of an animal he should have in his sights – but these are the perils of being in the woods during hunting season.

Another kid, this a former classmate in his mid-20s, was partying with a bunch of teenagers in coal-hole stretch of woods, much like the dangerous other side of the ridge in my town, fell down a hole when the cops came to chase him and the gang, broke his neck and died. I remember reading this and thinking, “Buddy, what were you doing in the woods getting drunk with a bunch of teenagers?” At that age, it made no sense to me, and makes even less sense now, when the guy should have been in any number of local bars legally drinking with adults.

There are plenty more stories like this involving the woods, and none of them are told with any sense of macho pride or world weariness. I know what it’s like now to bury loved ones, and that’s a different set of very real emotions as compared to these wayward stories of youthful indiscretions that end up in close calls or sometimes even death. The woods. Even when I’m sweeping up leaves in Queens, I can still feel them around me.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


I’ve lost that sense of being guided through life. Parents. Teachers. Mentors and such. And I don’t think that’s such a good thing. It always helps to have someone with a little more experience than you offering good advice. Then again, I’ve surely had some and should feel lucky, because there are plenty of people who have none in their lives, from their awful parents onward.

Not to belabor the point, but when Dad passed on, that sense of losing a guide was over-powering. He was much more of a “watch what I do, never mind what I say” person. Most people are the opposite, which always rings false with me. Rarely got any stern lectures. Or any sage life lessons. He just quietly did what he did, and I can see now the object was to follow along and draw my own conclusions. This was a bit dangerous to do with teenagers, most of whom would benefit greatly from a life-threatening ass-kicking. But I made it through those wacky years. That’s about my only major criticism of my parents: they never instilled a strong sense of discipline. By the same token, I’ve seen parents go overboard in the other direction, and that’s much worse. An undisciplined kid at least has that sense of freedom he should have at that age – if you have your head on straight, sooner or later, you learn some kind of discipline.

So losing him had that sense of slowly understanding who he was and what he really meant to me. I can sit back now and easily remember some of the bad shit – something I wouldn’t allow myself to do in the wake of all that. But it’s better for me to quietly give myself the sense that he’s watching over me by doing as he did. That’s how people live on, in memory and habit. And that’s how guides work in our lives. We don’t want to be that person so much as to distill the best of what we saw in them and use that in our own lives. I can live with the few bad memories, and actually use the good ones.

School? I had a few guides along the way, most English teachers. I look back now and recognize most of them were hippies – that time period in the 70s when all those hippies realized “come the revolution” was going to be nothing but a quaint conversation phrase, and they stayed in grad school as long as possible to beat the draft, thus getting some type of Masters and dropping themselves into the education system en masse circa the early-mid 1970s. A lot of them also seemed to favor Bloomsburg University, when I was of college age, the place you went to when you didn’t want to go to Penn State and wanted to stay closer to home. Bloomsburg is still a cool little town along the Susquehanna River, although I get those “I no longer belong here” college-town vibes when I pass through.

I remember TS, whom we called Baby Huey, because he looked a little like the cartoon character. He was a big guy, tall and burly, and in that big-guy mode tended to be far more gentle and open-minded than smaller guys with something to prove. RJ, too, who looked like a sleazy used-car dealer but had a sharp mind. I think he was a little older than the other teachers, always brings to mind Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.

And the first person to notice my stuff, PM, who moved to New York in her early 20s to become a model, which I think she was for awhile, before heading home again and becoming a teacher. (I remember finding her picture in an old yearbook … her favorite recording artist was Jimi Hendrix.) She smoked a lot and had a loud horse laugh – a strange combination for a woman who was model attractive – so a lot of kids were intimidated by her. But we got along fine. I’d keep a journal and let her read it – there was some pretty bizarre stuff in there, too, as I was aping William Burroughs and Hunter Thompson every chance I had. But she put up with it, and was probably shocked and amazed that at least one of her students was into the Beats.

At Penn State, I ran into CC, a good guy from Jersey, another hippie who had gone straight through to get a Ph.D. without a pause. I got to know him at a horrible time in his life, when his young/beautiful first wife had recently died from brain cancer. A terrible thing for anyone, but for a guy in his 20s? I had no concept of what he must have gone through then, but I do now. After I got through the first two years at the branch campus where he taught (and then going on to two years at the main campus), we became much better friends and started hanging out at his place with other like-minded individuals, sometime wandering around the woods behind his house with bottles of wine while he blasted out some dramatic Shakespeare passage.

He was one of the few college professor who dropped his guard and let himself be human. For my money, he was a little too wrapped up in the intelligentsia aspect of his college life: heavily into jazz and classical music, knew all about wine, an expert on Shakespeare, etc. I think it was my role to give him an undiluted point of view from a Coal Region-native. Seeing as how he was from suburban New Jersey, he must have been shocked to encounter people who seemed like the country version of dockworkers from a Marlon Brando movie. He got to know a few of us locals and in doing so got a better grasp of where he was living, as he could have just as easily hung out with campus colleagues listening to harp music and shit. He taught me a lot about classic literature and poetry, and I gathered that the best student/teacher relationship is an exchange of information as opposed to the teacher assuming total responsibility.

I’ve seen pictures of him recently, and the chickens have come home to roost. He looks like any other middle-aged Jersey Italian guy, the kind of guy who could probably get you a good set of snow tires, half price, no questions asked, meet him behind the Burger King on Route 9 on Saturday at noon, sharp. A stark contrast form the hippie wimp look he had going when I first met him: the way he looks now suits him better.

In New York? About the only guide I had in any sense was VM, who worked at an ad agency I did time in during my 20s. VM has an incredible life story: a Polish Jew who somehow evaded the concentration camps as a child (most of his family didn’t), made his way to America, put himself through high school and college, was incredibly bright (he knows at least half a dozen languages), got into advertising in that golden age of the 50s and 60s, then hung around the business and was clearly looking to get out by the time I met him circa 1990.

It says something about me that the only guides I’ve had in life outside of parents are very smart, learned people who may not appear to be over-poweringly successful to the outside world, but possess a warmth and sanity that make themselves obvious when you meet them. VM had done pretty well for himself in advertising – an apartment in Forest Hills (for the uninitiated, a pricey part of Queens) and a country home on a lake an hour north or the city. But aside from that, he lived humbly. And he couldn’t stand the unruly collection of MBAs, backstabbers and cocksuckers who over-populated the advertising industry by that point in history. He’d never use those words, but that’s what he meant when he offered me sage counsel on who to watch myself around in the agency, which was run by a lunatic who should never have been placed in any sort of managerial position. But that’s the world of advertising.

VM got me into his social club, which was a strange collection of actors (some of them famous) and aging Jewish businessmen. The main draw of the club was a small gym on the second floor, but on the third floor, a large sauna and steam room that was a true blessing to use in the winter months. When VM and I would go in at lunch, both were often empty, and it was like having our own private club. Most of the businessmen in the club came to do three things: the steam/sauna, but more importantly to sit around in towels playing cards on the fourth flour and loudly cursing each other. It was quite a scene. How many times did I see naked old Jewish guys, with dongs like ponies, walking around with cigars and a handful of playing cards?

VM rarely gave any advice, save to be true to myself. He liked the idea that I was pursuing writing in some sense, and I never understood why didn’t do so himself because he was clearly a talented, smart man. Much like Dad, I could look at VM and see a guy who had carved out a place for himself in life, liked it, and felt no need to have anything more. Please understand how rare that is with any sort of business people in New York, who never seem to have enough money, no matter how rich they are.

And I think that’s my problem with having any guides in the business world in New York. I don’t look up to these people. Don’t look down on them either. I just don’t want their lives because they don’t look all that appealing to me. Most of these people work like fiends, upwards of 60 hours a week. If they’re near the top of a company, their entire lives are geared towards work. They don’t strike me as being particularly happy either. It’s not the nature of business, which seems to be to constantly make more money. If you’re not doing that, you’re stagnating and failing in some sense. I’m not laying out any Gordon Gekko-style rap here – it’s simply how these people see the world and their place in it.

Which has little to do with mine! And I don’t think mine is any better – we just take comfort in different things. It’s a mistake for non-business minded people to look down on wealthy business people and feel pity or remorse because they’re so into money. Granted, I don’t understand the fanatical attraction. But a lot of these people, when you work with them, you can see how extremely intelligent they are. Forget about degrees and titles – these are simply smart people who know how to gauge other people and situations. It seems to me that a lot of good business practices are based on the simple ability to read people and take appropriate action.

If it was just that alone, great, sign me up! But there’s a lot more going on. Greed, in particular. There’s no other way to explain obscenely wealthy people who never stop. (In the investment bank where I worked, some of the Managing Directors would often comment that they’d do this for X number of years and then get out. I wouldn’t say anything, but I knew damn well that wasn’t in their nature. They’re investment bankers, not philosophers, or fly-fisherman, or any other bullshit situation they had lined up for themselves after they “made enough.” There’s never enough when that’s your line of work. And nothing to be particularly ashamed of, which I gather most of them aren’t! But every now and then, one of those guys would go off on his "oh, for the salad days of my youth" rambles, and all I could think was, "Fuck you, buddy. You'd be miserable and lost if you were that poor again.")

Maybe it’s because I was raised working-class, and have lived my entire life around working-class people, that I don’t feel any burning need to be rich. Not if it implies living my life in full-on “work” mode. What’s funny is that Dad would always delight in hearing how well I was doing money wise when I was working more lucrative jobs, and him not quite understanding that this wasn’t making me any more happy or satisfied with life. Because I was raised in a way, thanks to him, that money was not a burning issue, nor any indication of how well I was or wasn’t doing. We had enough to get by and live comfortably, even in the context of working-class America. I’m comfortable with that – then and now.

I don’t dislike business people – on the contrary, I’ve met plenty that I like just fine. That investment bank I worked at, one of the guys running the joint, JS, was a great guy. In another life, I can picture him somewhere in the midwest, this giant bear of a man, wearing a black suit with a string tie and a preacher’s hat, standing on a tree stump and holding a crowd in awe of his speaking abilities, black Bible in one hand, the other raised to God. He had that way about him – probably the smartest person I ever met in business. A nice guy, too, unless you pissed him off, which to his credit was only when you screwed something up terribly.

It seems like it comes down to the fact that the people I look up to in life never lived by any set rules of success or failure, pretty much just lived their lives for better or worse, and were far more interested in mulling over what it all means than taking direct, decisive paths to put themselves in positions of financial security. And I guess that’s what I’m doing these days. I think our country is sickly obsessed with the concepts of greed and personal wealth. And that when you look past those obsessions, life becomes a lot more clear. That’s all my guides have ever taught me, for what it’s worth, which may be nothing.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Charmed, I'm Sure

Well, having a slow time lately turning up new work, which has me pretty annoyed as I’ll have to chew into some savings if it goes on too long. My cost of living has nudged up over the past few years: paying $100 more a month on rent than when I moved into this place, and paying a little over $100 a month on cable (TV and computer), which used to be just TV and dial-up, and about $30 less a month total.

But what it really means is that I’ve been inexplicably drawn to turning the sound down on the TV between 8 and 10 and leaving that horrible show Charmed on the TNT Network. Don’t know if you remember it – one of those “groovy witch” shows starring Shannon Doherty, Alyssa Milano and eventually Rose MacGowan. There’s just something so bizarre about the show. You have three hot, very attractive women, all done up with page-boy hair cuts and the most K Mart-looking clothes so the net effect is to dull their down their erotic charms. They’re supposed to be hot … they’re witches. And all the guys on the shows, even if they’re detectives, are all hot guys in their 20s, I guess so chicks watching the show could have something to gawk at. They appear to have jobs. Why would witches have jobs when they can stop time with a blink of an eye, predict lottery winning numbers and conjure up any object at a moment's notice?

It’s sort of depressing watching the show, so I’ve broken that brief habit. The show had such a disorienting “bad TV” quality to it that only added to my annoyance with the pause in work assignments. And I’ve found it’s best just to get busy with my own shit – writing, cleaning the place, doing other projects. The problem is it’s very easy to get used to these sort of lulls, when I fully recognize I’m just not cut-out for hanging around the apartment during work hours, whether I’m getting paid or not. Some people – freelance writers, graphic artists and such – work from home. I could never do it. I need that sense of going somewhere else to work, even if it’s a hassle, maybe because it's a hassle, to delineate home and work lives. (I think I mentioned earlier one of my old bosses had the sage advice: “It’s all the same thing.” No. No way. Some people and situations I put up with in my work life wouldn’t stand a chance in my home life – I simply wouldn’t allow them in, the same way I’d keep out crack dealers. I can't choose the people in my work life -- damn straight I can choose who I have in my home life.)

What annoys me most is the economy is pretty good right now, and there should be tons of work to go around. It makes me think my person at the agency, whom I followed from another agency because we had such a good connection, is dropping the ball on me or just not getting good jobs in her new agency. I’ve gotten in the habit of turning down a fair number of things she’s offered, mainly because I know they’re shit jobs from the way she describes them: “Bill, this woman you’d be working for is known for being a little headstrong … could you work until 6:30 at night … there’s a lot of phone work with this one … these people want to interview for this two-week position … would you be willing to take a drug test.” Red flags galore that let me know I’d be having a very bad time at the place. I’ve been doing NYC office work for almost 20 years – I know the world like the back of my hand and know shit situations when they’re described to me in a line or two.

In my mind, I’ve grown to love the simple act of working, which wasn’t always true. A lot of people don’t like to work – they consider it a necessary evil. On the contrary, I don’t care what kind of work it is, so long as it keeps you occupied, pays you reasonably well and give you some kind of focus, that’s a really good thing. But I also believe in balance, and a lot of office jobs, people have no balance, especially in terms of time. If there’s one thing I knew even before Dad died, it’s that time is vastly more important then money. Chances are, it will run out on you first. I like the idea of a basic eight-hour work day, followed by some type of physical exercise (going to the gym is something I plan on doing the rest of my days), then going home and doing whatever. I’ve seen way too many office scenarios, especially in more creative fields like advertising, where people regularly spend upwards of 10 hours a day at work. What’s worse is that they’re clearly hanging around as some sort of macho “I won’t be the first leave” stance workers will take with each other to prove how valuable they are to a company. And I just refuse to live that way. Forget about unhealthy, it’s just not right. I think some people simply become addicted to both the amount of money they’re making, and the rush of making it at work, to which everything else takes a long second place.

By the same token, not having enough work is even worse. Because you’re at loose ends and not bringing in any money. It’s just a way of life I have no urge to get used to, and it grates on me when I get put in these positions work-wise between spots. Lord knows, some people would love to do nothing more than lie around the house all day, but I have no idea how their minds work. I thought like that when I was a kid, even when I was in college, but it seems like an abhorrent thought to me as an adult.

I remember in my 20s, when I was unhappy at a job, I’d fantasize that having the ability to walk around on the streets during work hours would be pretty cool. I must have been feeling like I was in prison or something to feel that way. As I recall, some of the jobs I had my 20s were pretty ragged – either dealing with the usual office politics and bullshit, or getting my ass worked off. Well, when you actually do get the ability to walk around during work hours, you realize there’s not a whole lot going on. Weird night people are just getting up and moving around. Old people get out on the streets. Every intelligent person in the city vacates the streets between 2:00 and 4:00 pm – when all the little assholes are let loose from the schools and run rampant for those few hours. (You want to have a bad experience, get on a NYC subway car between, say 2:30 and 3:30 on a weekday – chances are good you’ll get stuck on a train with a bunch of kids, some in ties and dress skirts, acting like total animals, and you’ll be too out-numbered to stop them.)

So, I make myself busy and hope something good comes in soon. I may have to consider getting full-time work, or a long-term spot, or another temp person. Shit, I’d love to freelance for myself and cut out the middle man, thus making about $10 more per hour, but I haven’t quite figured out how that happens. People seem to think you just walk into an office, there’s work for you, and you immediately start at $30 an hour. I wish. It grates on me that I have to work through an agency, but most companies are so geared to using them that it seems very hard to turn that nut on your own. It also grates on me that I don’t get paid much more, if anything more, than some dolt with a fraction of my skills and experience, and nowhere near my work ethic.

And the whole getting another person thing – there’s very little in life more humiliating than dealing with temp and freelance agencies. They make you come in and take these idiotic tests to prove your computer skills, no matter how much experience you have, and then you generally get interviewed by some young girl who’s just a hustler, not very good at what she does, doesn’t give a shit about you, and treats you accordingly. Maybe you’ll get work through her, maybe you won’t. Generally, if you don’t click right off the bat, you’ll just fade out.

At least I haven’t gotten into soap operas. So, for now, while away the hours. In the process of putting together my Christmas CD, which is always a ton of work, now got the covers in place and going through the lugubrious process of cutting them down to size and inserting them into the cases. Must get done. Seems like now’s the time. I wish the girls on Charmed would get naked just once.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Lou Reed Phase

Back in the 70s and 80s, something odd occasionally happened to guys in their 20s. College guys. Nerdy college guys with really good taste in music. At some point, they’d be exposed to The Velvet Underground. Sure, they knew who the band was, maybe even had the banana-peel album. And they knew who Lou Reed was, via “Walk on the Wild Side” and a few other hits. Classic-rock radio used to play stuff like “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” all the time – it wasn’t wall-to-wall Zeppelin and Floyd, which is the impression you get with “adult rock” stations today.

But for that nerd, it was like he was hearing Lou Reed for the first time, really getting it, man. He would rush out and buy everything he could find by the Velvet Underground, and then Lou Reed’s solo albums, which were a lot more spotty and often harder to find. This would often coincide with the Dylan phase – where the nerd once thought Dylan was a braying, over-rated jackass, he now heard a genius at work.

Thus, the Lou Reed Phase, something kids don’t go through anymore, except maybe for the lead singer of The Strokes, who went through the phase, decided it was a cool place, and stayed there forever.

I remember being deep in the phase myself. One afternoon, I went into the college newspaper office to type up that week’s column. Rather than use the more popular upstairs computers (which at the time had some pre-Windows word-processing program that was a black screen with “F10” commands – this was even pre-Wordperfect), I opted for the cramped downstairs room, which was the domain of the Arts and Sports staffs. I got along pretty well with both camps, although neither got on well with the other. Predictably, the sports writers were more frat-boy, beer-bash leaning sort of guys, and the arts staff was your standard-issue weird kids who couldn’t shake that weird-kid vibe despite being away at college.

I had hit the local record store before going in and had snagged some Lou Reed. I’m trying to recall how it felt at that time to be buying landmark albums that I’d never heard. The thing is, I didn’t really know they were landmark albums, I just knew I should be buying them. I think I had the Velvet Underground live double-album set and Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. (Of course, I’d go home later that night and have my mind blown by songs like “Street Hassle” and “Pale Blue Eyes.”) I was sitting there typing away when JB, one of the nerdy art-staff people, came by, saw my bag from the local record store, asked if he could see what I bought, I said sure. He pulled out the albums and gasped.

“That’s incredible. I was just listening to White Light/White Heat this morning! I think you’re one of about five people I’ve met on this entire campus who knows who The Velvet Underground are.”

And, thus, one nerd starting his Lou Reed Phase met another. JB, like most of the Arts staff, was well into all sorts of cool music, and I can tell you, that was a damn good time to be into the indie music scene, because it was exploding in the mid-80s, just a deluge of classic bands like early REM, The Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven, etc. Really cool stuff that I still listen to today, and it still sounds fresh.

But only guys could go through the Lou Reed Phase. It was a lot like the Dylan phase. If one of these guys had a girlfriend, she’d invariably not be on the same wavelength, i.e., she’d be sane. The guy would be playing some Lou Reed on the stereo while they were putzing around the apartment, and he’d shush her. “Stop talking, please stop talking. You have to listen to this line.” She’d stop, the record would be droning away, and the line would be, “Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark.”

She’d stare at him, as he had his eyes closed, nodding sagely.

“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?” she’d ask him.

He’d stare at her in disbelief, try to answer, only stutter, shake his head and walk away. A few weeks later, she’d find some guy from the same Philly suburb she came from, who liked Phil Collins and had a bigger dick, and she’d dump art-boy’s ass for being so esoteric. He’d just find another girl to shush while some revelatory line came over the stereo so she could share in his enlightenment.

That’s the sort of thing guys in the Lou Reed Phase would do regularly. As I may have noted in an earlier posting, I was in the habit of going home a lot my junior and senior years at Penn State, which meant a good two-hour drive at night with the stereo blasting. That would mean Lou Reed and/or The Velvet Underground. I can still recall the perplexed reaction I’d get the few times I’d give friends a ride back home. To me, this music was perfectly normal. These were guys who grew up on Skynyrd and Van Halen, and still listened to that stuff all the time. They never said anything, but they were probably thinking, “Jesus Christ, where’s he going with this?”

And the truth was, nowhere in particular. I was just getting a new set of tastes in music, one that kept growing exponentially from those days in college. With Lou Reed, I really loved his lyrics, how tough and gritty they were. And songs like “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side” sound elemental in their riffs and bass lines – the kind of thing you take for granted and have heard a thousand times, but once upon a time, did not exist. The guy had a real genius for making music that seemed simplistic, but in reality was brand new – and that’s often the mark of a genius in pop music.

The problem with the Lou Reed Phase was that the man himself was a dick. You loved his music, but you didn’t want to emulate him. Well-adjusted guys don't come up with lines like, "I'm going to nullify my life." Or "I'm set free to find a new illusion" -- in the same song, he has a vision of his laughing head rolling on the ground.

That Lou Reed explosion in college surely wasn’t my first exposure to his music. As noted, I knew his singles from radio – the live version of “Sweet Jane” from the Rock and Roll Animal album was ubiquitous on 70s AOR radio, and it kicked ass. Back in the 70s and 80s, record stores used to have what I called shit bins in the front of the store – cut-out records and cassette tapes that had been remaindered. They often sold for $2.00 or less, the kind of thing where if you had time to kill and a few extra bucks, you’d hit the shit bin and occasionally find a gem.

It was just such a circumstance where my neighbor Bubba and I were looking for something different, circa 1981 or so. Bubba had a cassette player in his car, but most of his music was metal and 70s rock leaning. I was going through the shit bin when I came upon Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed, a two-cassette collection, four songs, each with the album’s title, Parts I-IV. I had heard that this was a very bad album that he put out in hopes of breaking his contract with the record company, but had never heard the album. This was it – I think the total cost was $2.00. There were about 10 copies, as nobody wanted this album. It was the first time I’d seen it anywhere in any form.

Well, we got out to the parking lot, put the tape in and were met with a wall of squealing feedback. What the fuck, we thought, there’s something wrong with this first tape, put the second one in. The second one was the same. No wonder why they threw this in the bargain bin, we reasoned, there’s something wrong with the tape. So, we took it back, explained our problem, and got another copy. Went back to the parking lot, put the tape in. It was then we realized that this was Metal Machine Music: over an hour on non-stop metallic squealing. On one hand we felt robbed. On the other, we thought it was pretty cool that a recording artists of that stature would be such a bastard to screw literally everyone like this. Bubba would often pop that tape in to freak out people on the street – and it worked.

Beyond that, Lou Reed was often a condescending prick in interviews, not very nice at all. He had some legendary blowouts with rock critic Lester Bangs that are well worth reading. There was an odd period in the mid-70s where Reed claimed to be gay – the interviews he gave around that time were condemnations of women and confirmation that he was into men only, and that was that. A few years later, he’d be happily married and living in suburban New Jersey (which didn’t last either). His parents on Long Island had given him electro-shock therapy in his teens when he had shown homosexual tendencies. It would seem that after this “out” phase in the mid-70s, he went back to women and is currently married to Laurie Anderson. But who knows, or cares really. All that’s certain is Lou is one strange guy. He put out a song in the early 80s called “Average Guy” which was him claiming to be just that. Uh, no. Average guys don’t have electro-shock at the age of 15 and then spend a few years in the 70s with German Iron Crosses shaved into their yellow-peroxide nub hair cuts, with black-painted fingernails and years-long methamphetamine addictions.

I found myself standing next to Lou Reed once. Roughly 10 years ago, prominent NYC radio disc jockey Vin Scelsa had a 50th birthday party at which a whole slew of famous recording artists came out and played. This was at the now-defunct Bottom Line on 4th Street. My friend Dr. Dick and I went, but got there late and thus were wedged in standing by the bar – the place was packed. As it turned out, this was not a bad thing as everyone who played that night had to go by us, some of them standing around most of the show checking out the other artists. Lou Reed performed, but about half an hour later, Ronnie Spector did a set of her old songs with Joey Ramone, which brought Lou out from backstage to witness her singing. He was right next to me, literally rubbing shoulders. The thing is, he put out such a “don’t talk to me” vibe that it never occurred to me to say a word to him, this guy whose music I had worshipped for years. He only wanted to hear Ronnie Spector sing “Be My Baby,” probably because it took him back to a very cool place in his Brooklyn youth, and he clearly got a kick out of her.

That’s a strange feeling to be standing next to someone you had idolized for years, and then realized meeting up with him was no great shakes. I learned a lot that night, actually learned a lot over the years in New York, that it’s often better, or simply doesn’t matter, that you don’t meet people whose art you love and respect. The person is often just going about his life, doing his thing, and there will be no great revelation, you may not even like the actual person, who will be aloof, at best, after going through this shit for the 10,000th time. I suspect with people like Lou Reed, or somebody like Van Morrison, they put a part of themselves into their music that isn’t part of their every-day lives – it’s more who they want to be than who they are. Which is fine – because by doing that on a regular basis, it becomes who they are in some sense. Doesn’t make them wonderful people to deal with, but when they have a guitar in hand …

Back to the Lou Reed Phase, I think moving to New York, as JB from college also did a year or so before me, helped break it down. The Velvet Underground song “I'm Waiting for the Man” has a line about going “up to Lexington, 1-2-5” to make a heroin connection. If you’ve never been to Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, there’s nothing cool about it. A 4/5/6 train stop is right there, and the Metro North stop just up the block. You go up there (or down there in my case, as I was living in the Bronx back then) as a white boy, and nobody really looks at you funny – they just assume you’re going to get the Metro North train. Not buy heroin. It’s a pretty mundane feeling. Not even frightening, unless you get a special thrill about being the only white person around a whole lot of black folks. (These days, I suspect you’ll see a few hearty white folks paying a fortune to live in shitty apartments around there.)

The songs just weren’t our lives. We didn’t do heroin, or drag an OD victim we had just screwed on a bar out in the street so a car would run her over and disguise the fact that she had OD’d, or any other bizarre set-ups described in Lou Reed songs. We just didn’t do that shit. We worked in offices and tried to write when we could – still do it now, for christ’s sake. Somewhere along the line, that sort of thing stopped feeling cool, even imaging it felt like a bad cliché.

Forget about identifying with it – I think a large part of it was simply adopting a stance that seemed incredibly decadent compared to how mundane our lives were/are. But after you spend time around “decadent” people, you recognize so many of them are severely damaged, emotionally and morally bankrupt, about as warm as dead fish on ice, and they rarely have the sort of talent Lou Reed does. Some people get into that sort of vibe – it occurred to me pretty quickly that I didn’t. To this day, when I meet people in New York who put out “too cool for the room” vibes, my initial impulse is to punch them square in the face. I just get the fuck away from the person before this transpires. If I lived in Manhattan, I’d have beat someone to death by now.

I recall a few record reviewers in the early 80s, when Lou got into his “average guy” phase of his career, implying that he was heroic for having emotions. Which, I guess in the context of his art, was quite a breakthrough, as he spent years fostering an image of being coolly detached and far hipper than anyone on the planet. But that really struck me, because I looked at people in my life, especially my mother, and thought, “For fuck’s sake, my mother has more emotional depth in her little finger than Lou Reed has in his whole body. Where’s her glowing review in a major publication?” I don’t think the reviewers were wrong to note that Lou was doing a good thing by showing more emotions in his writing. I think they were wrong in not recognizing how emotionally stunted he had been before then, and that there was nothing heroic in expressing what any humane, caring person did effortlessly on a daily basis. It was like he was getting a standing ovation for riding a tricycle.

His cool sheen wore off in the 80s. For one, he became like a skipping record with his constant references to New York City. It felt cheap, he really ran it into the ground. We get it, Lou – you’re from New York, and you’re cool. Next? But the real nail in his cool coffin was doing a commercial for Honda motorcycles, which was a simple city street vignette at night to the tune of “Walk on the Wild Side” that ended with Lou on a Honda motorcycle blurting, “Don’t settle for walking.”

And that was truly the end of the Lou Reed Phase for me! I can’t verify if this is true or not, but I recall a friend at the time who said he and a friend who had a broken leg in a full cast went to a record-signing out on Long Island just after this commercial came out. His friend thought it would be a real kick if he could get Lou to sign “don’t settle for walking” on his cast. But when the guy approached Lou and asked if he could do this, Lou just stared him down until he left, or was more likely pulled away by security. He settled for walking.

Monday, October 16, 2006

On Being (Not) Irish

On many Sundays when I was a kid, it was a tradition to go visit our aunts in Port Carbon, PA. Port Carbon was, probably still is, a rough little town just outside of Pottsville, and my aunts all lived together in a small house that faced a large wooded hill. It was just around a sharp curve at the edge of town, so I always had a sense of their house coming out of nowhere, and once there, being pressed up against that hill. In my memory, it’s always raining in Port Carbon. There was a bar on the corner with a Pabst sign in the window.

They were my grandmother’s sisters, some of whom married and were widowed, some who didn’t – I think there were four all together? It’s a bit shameful that I can never exactly recall. It was a classic Coal Region set-up, these aging Irish sisters all living together in this small house. They always had a bowl of hard candies wrapped in brown cellophane at the ready, which tasted like pennies. They had two dogs who were usually found sleeping behind the coal stove in the kitchen. One nice, one nasty. Strange dogs. When you’d come in, they’d bark and wag their tails, but never get up to greet you, not wanting to leave the warmth of the stove.

Those long Sunday afternoons in Port Carbon would go on forever, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Bess, the leader, was a tough old broad, wore pillbox hats, I can recall her hiking up her dress to her knees to tie some kind of knot in whatever weird kind of stockings she favored. Smoked like a stack. Cat-eyed horn rim glasses. Croaked more than she talked and coughed constantly. The others were far more kind and quiet. It was always an overwhelming experience to go down there, but it gave my grandmother (who lived with us) a chance to get caught up. They’d sit around talking about old times and the weather, while all us kids lost our minds on the living-room floor. Eventually, we’d saunter off to the local playground and hit the swings or that round spinning wheel you’d hop on and get immediately dizzy. The park was wedged between a shit creek and a power plant.

Forget about big-band music. In my head, I heard 30s music when I went down there – Rudy Vallee and early Bing Crosby. Marlene Dietrich singing “Falling in Love Again.” Brother, can you spare a dime. I can still recall the time I cursed Bess – probably for a good reason as she treated kids with disdain, but still a sign of deep disrespect. And she literally made me sit in the kitchen with a bar of soap in my mouth. It tasted better than their hard candies, but I still wept because I had shamed myself. And I remember her weeping, too, when she saw how out of sorts this made me. I always had a love/hate thing going with her. Years later, brother J would inherit her beast of a car, this giant Buick from the 60s, the same dull color as their hard-candy wrapping, that got about eight miles to the gallon, had Jesus on the cross glued to the dashboard and shook like crazy when you got the car over 50 mph. We called it the Batmobile.

If you took away Port Carbon and replaced it with Donegal or Dublin, the only difference would be the accents. The sense of Irish Catholicness those women put forth was mind boggling, although it’s my understanding that their side of the family had been in America for at least a few generations. Still, because of the coal mines in the late 1800s and the coal industry thriving through the 1940s, that region was and still is a stronghold of people with Irish lineage. Cross that with my mother’s Scottish lineage … and begorrah and fiddlesticks. Actually, my surname is German, a lineage no one wants to discuss, as it’s not nearly so romantic as that of the Emerald Isle. German Scotts Irish. When I get drunk, I want to rule the world, so long as it won’t cost too much.

For all that lineage, aside from that close connection to my aunties, I can look back and see I was raised with very little sense of real Irish heritage. Which is not to say I wasn’t raised Irish – I surely was and have been pleasantly surprised to find I have a pretty similar temperament, humor and outlook on life to many actual Irish folks. Much like how a cat just knows to shit in a litterbox and bury it – I can’t really explain it.

A few years back, I wrote a story for Leisure Suit.net about dealing with the Greeks in Astoria, and one reader in particular took such umbrage that she gathered together a bunch of her like-minded harpie, neurotic friends and laid siege to that story. Her gist being that I didn’t know shit about Greek people like her … which was the whole point of my story … that the Greeks in Astoria pretty much keep to themselves and shut everyone else out … and her display of shit manners wasn’t exactly busting doors open for the community. But one of her harpy friends who stated she was Hispanic said something to the effect of: “At least I have a culture, unlike people like you.”

I didn’t really know how to answer a person that stupid. I gather plenty of 718 folks look at white people who move here (believe me, out of necessity, as everything else in New York is priced beyond insanity) and see them as this vague, threatening cloud of white suburbia encroaching on their little world. Not quite realizing people come from all over the world, from all sorts of different cultures, not some monochromatic white culture these dolts have built up in their heads based on sitcoms and the acceptable anti-white sentiment that’s second nature in the 718s. The truth is the culture of northeast Pennsylvania is fairly unique in its mix of Eastern European and Irish customs, along with a history tied to an industry that once powered the country but fell on harder times eventually. And it goes back a lot deeper than any hispanic neighborhood in New York City. But there’s no point in explaining that to some imbecile who looks at you and sees only a white cloud raining money.

When I think back on how I was raised, “Irish” wasn’t really a conscious part of it. I think working-class and 1970s, more than anything. That part of Pennsylvania was always chronically unemployed – rates always double what the national average was. When you’re raised in that sort of environment, that factor trumps just about everything else. The overall culture of the 1970s was also a strange push/pull between deeply troubled economic and political times, and the desire to forget about these things. As a kid, I was pretty happy – the music I listened to was happy. It was OK to be a happy person. Kids weren’t openly encouraged by the culture to be thugs and manic depressives. Although I can still recall guidance counselors spouting that, “It’s harder than ever to be a kid these days” line of bullshit. I found it pretty easy at the time.

“Irish” didn’t really play into that, save people noticed I looked Irish. My aunties would always say, “Oh, look at Billy, he looks just like all those little boys on that trip we took to Belfast.” By mentioning the word Belfast, they’d put the image in my mind of a little kid who looked like me lobbing a molotov cocktail at a British armored unit. At least that stark image was one I always recalled from a story in the National Geographic about Northern Ireland, the troubles of which were going full gun at the time.

So when I came to New York in the late 1980s, I didn’t really have that sense of Irishness that I would encounter with people in the tristate area. Where you’ll find a swarming Irish culture, mostly people in the suburbs of Jersey these days, a generation or two removed from the Bronx or Woodside, and probably not more than another generation from Ireland itself. A lot of Irish immigrants, too, looking for work, although there's not nearly so many these days. It’s because of one that I’m living in the apartment I’m at now, as he passed it on to me when he moved out, just as he had received it from another Irish immigrant who went back home.

It was strange for me to encounter people who recognized me as one of their own, yet I wasn’t one of their own. I did the usual things: fostering a love for Guinness, getting into Irish music (more rock than traditional, think The Pogues), and getting more into Irish literature. I had never known who J.P. Donleavy was, and reading A Fairy Tale of New York blew my mind at the time. As did The Ginger Man. But after that, it seemed like he was endlessly repeating himself with the stock character of the wily drunkard American who goes back to Ireland to live the life of a country gentleman.

Another problem with J.P. Donleavy was that I’d constantly come across these young Irish-American guys raised around New York who worshipped him, and tried to emulate not just him, but any Irish artistic figure. Which meant only one thing: alcoholism. They had this romantic images in their heads of being drunk off their asses all the time, and everyone would find them charming in their sense of Irishness. But it was never true. I can still recall an acquaintance passing out at a party after drinking half a bottle of Jamesons and shitting his pants. Again, the sort of thing that seems cool or funny when you’re 25, but, man, the guy was just a pathetic drunk, and I shudder to think what he’s doing these days.

I can still recall an old college friend asking what I was going to do for St. Patrick’s Day one year in the early 90s. “Oh,” I sniffed, “probably come home from work and read some William Butler Yeats poems. I surely won’t be going to any bars.” What a pompous asshole I was. As far in the other direction as so many guys went with the alcoholic Irishman image, I thought I was on some higher road to totally deny that. (I can’t fault anyone who wants to stay out of bars on St. Patrick’s day, but by the same token, you can have a lot of fun with tons of people in a bar who normally aren’t there.)

After awhile, I felt a bit put off by how over-the-top so many Irish folks made themselves out to be in New York. It was like they couldn’t accept being basic, every-day white Americans, so they attached themselves to this romantic image which wasn’t really who they were. Or at least I recognized strains of that in myself and backed off a bit. When you meet actual people from Ireland, they always seem perplexed by Americans who call themselves “Irish.” I remember a guy in a bar telling me: “When I’m back home, and I see an American coming on one of those walking tours, I don’t think, ‘Oh, look, here comes the Irishman.’ I think ‘Oh, look, here comes the Yank.’”

By the same token, back in Pennsylvania, my dad married a Protestant, and this was considered a mixed marriage at the time. And for how sweet my aunties were, there were many times later on in their lives when my Mom would drop off my grandmother to spend time with them, and they'd inundate her with anti-Protestant rhetoric to the point that Mom would spend the next week or two hearing why she was such an awful human being for not being Catholic. Understand that this occurred after my grandmother had a severe stroke which left her greatly disabled, and my Mom basically did everything in terms of taking care of her. It's to Mom's credit that she never once blew her cool, or told my aunties to fuck off, which would have been totally within her right.

The whole Catholic/Protestant theme was nowhere near as desperate as it really was/is in Ireland, but it was a recognizable rift, not just in my own family, but in our town. The kids knew what denomination all of us were, and it would sometimes come out in fights, but usually only then. The cemeteries on the hill in our town were split by a white picket fence – Protestants on one side, the Catholics on the other. The fence is gone, but I imagine it will take years for people to be buried there and have that subtle barrier broken.

But overall, I do get a kick out of “the Irish” in New York. Because you get right down to it, there is that strange bond I can’t deny, and so many odd little cultural touchstones that I recognize we were all raised with, most related to Catholicism and all the rules we had to tolerate as kids. Confession, catechism, confirmation, etc. I think with being Irish, it’s more a recognition of temperament and sense of humor than anything else. You can heap all these other things on top of it: love of the Notre Dame football team, drinking Guinness, being into The Pogues and such, acquiring a huge library of Irish authors, etc. But that shit doesn’t make you Irish, much like listening to hiphop doesn’t make you black (a message lost on so many culture-less kids over the past two decades).

I think I’m noticing the difference between cultural affectation, which runs rampant in our country, and the simple reality of quietly being raised with traditions that don’t readily announce themselves and aren’t recognizable to the outside world. Irish? Nah – I’m an American when it comes down to nationalities. And a non-hyphenated one at that. But it is interesting for me to meet other people of Irish lineage, or actual Irish people, and get those strange little jolts of recognition.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baccalaureate Banshee Blues

When I started up with this blog, one of my intentions was to recall that hazy period of college life and shortly thereafter. In a lot of senses, that time period, from about the age of 18 to 25, seems very distant to me now. I think the main reason is because I don't physically have a lot of those people and places in my life. All of my old college friends have spread out over the years, and the last time I made it back to Penn State was for a summer arts festival in the early 90s. Which felt weird.

Life works like that -- if you don't have constant physical reminders of people and places, they fade out. I knew dozens of people in college – hesitate to call them friends – but these days, I’m in touch with maybe eight of them. Why? For most, it’s simply because they moved elsewhere, as did I in terms of coming to New York. Moving is one thing, but when you move and stay apart for years, unless you had a real strong bond with that person, it’s just simple physics that you’ll drift further apart. No great crime in this, although it’s interesting to note I still know more people I grew up with back home. And part of that is because that’s a physical place I visit often.

Penn State is like a vague dream to me now. I think it was a good dream – I know it wasn’t a nightmare. But for the most part, those days are distant past, not so much buried as faded. I can look back and see that was a good experience in terms of establishing my adult identity, which has surely changed much since then. I’d say our natures stay roughly the same, but everything else gets constantly rehauled, tested, burned out, reborn, discarded, etc. We often think we stay the same, but there are constant flutters in the under-current that we’re not fully aware of.

Some of those people from college didn't fade out – they either jumped or were pushed. Not in some outraged, violent way. More in a way of “we’re not the same people anymore, no need to stay in contact” – which has happened with people I went on knowing after college, but somewhere in the mid-20s to early 40s, zoned out on. Strangely enough, all women, albeit none with any sort of romantic attachment. And all worked for the same college paper with me. I think it’s interesting to look at just what happened with each.

AV was a damn good writer, when she wasn’t so mildly self loathing that she refused to indulge in anything creative. Came from a small town just outside of Pittsburgh, working class, brother became a state cop, etc. Really like a lot of kids at Penn State, including me. Deeply into the Alternative music scene of the 80s, which is how I got to know a lot of cool people at college.

There’s a difference I’ve noticed in people in their teens/early 20s and older people that some might call cynicism, but I’d just call common sense. And that’s younger people will have mentally troubled people in their lives and either not sense this in any way, or sense it and downplay it. Ergo, most of the similarly-aged mentally troubled kids they know are still on that upward arc of their problems and haven’t come down the other side, when things like lifelong prescriptions of mood enhancing drugs become part of their lives.

I don’t think AV was ever that far gone, but I think she had issues. I still recall the one time a few of us went to Pittsburgh to see a show, and she knew the town well. I was driving, and we came to a busy intersection near the Pitt University campus where I had to go straight to get where we were going. I asked her, what do I do here. She just looked at me. Then she blurted out don’t turn left. By this time, I was in the intersection, coasting, and waiting to be in an accident. Since I was in the right lane, I jerked the car right, to which she blurted out, you went the wrong way. I asked, why didn’t you just say, “Go straight”? She answered, “Because I’m no longer using the word ‘straight’ in any form since it’s derogatory to homosexuals.”

Back then, I just stared at her and shook my head. These days, I’d have thrown her out of the fucking car. Granted, I’ve met a lot of left-leaning people in NYC who I believe are nuts, but this was taking it a step further – we nearly got t-boned over her sense of political correctness. (And guess how I’ve felt about that concept ever since!)

Like all of us, she meandered for a bit after graduation before heading south, ending up in New Orleans. It didn't matter to me what her job there was, which was something like being a porter in a funky hotel – good for her. It’s just that she kept veering farther left (not "straight"), to the point where there was no talking to her anymore if you disagreed with her. It started with her becoming a soldier in the pro-choice army, attending many abortion clinic protests all over the south to the point where she and her friends knew all the pro-life nuts they were forever counter-protesting. I still don’t know how she’d manage to be at a clinic rally in Birmingham one day and back at work the next.

As we moved into our 30s, it became clear that most of her friends were kids fresh out of colleges like Tulane and LSU, bumming around New Orleans, barstool anarchists and such. I knew plenty of people like this in New York, and at that point in my life, all that stuff started fading out. You get tired of beat-down looking white boys reading Bukowski and Chomsky in shitty bars and wonder how these people survive with no visible means of support. It gets old. Sooner or later, you recognize the whole routine is an act of denial over their moneyed backgrounds, because you actually came from one these guys envied, for some stupid reason, and there’s no way you could afford to do nothing all day and somehow get by.

I think the last straw for me was when she put up a few MOVE members at her place while they were in town. If you don’t remember MOVE, they were the black “back to nature” armed separatist movement that set-up shop in Philadelphia and ended up getting bombed out of their fortress by Philadelphia's new black mayor, Wilson Goode. You may not also remember this was a cause celeb in the early 90s after a few books came out on the subject. Never quite understood why these folks didn’t join forces with the Waco/Koresh camp, because they’d have gotten along like gangbusters, despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But hearing AV go on about how wonderful these people were, and then start in with their rhetoric, that was pretty much it for me. We had some weeks-long email blow-out, and I left it at that. I guess it was her point of view that I was selling out by not agreeing with all these far-left points of view. The reality was I was just trying to survive in a major city, and frankly wasn’t that heavily into politics, never really had been, nor had she for most of the time I knew her at college (or at least she kept this hidden from me). Still, even through all the crap, I could see she was a good-hearted person, but you reach a point where if people make it difficult for you to be in their lives, you just get the fuck out.

Both AV and I were good friends with PK, an editor at the paper, and a damn good one at that. She was about 10 years older than all of us, going to grad school for a Masters in Psychology, which I don’t think she ever got. PK had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, which meant we got along like gangbusters. Our first contact was me dropping a note in her mailbox chastising her for picking Reckoning over Born in the USA as album of the year for 1984.

I will forever be in PK’s debt for turning me on to so much cool music in the mid-80s, whether it was newer alternative stuff, or older blues and soul which was completely fresh to me. Her apartment was packed with records – literally thousands. (I never got near a thousand with records, as my collecting years have straddled records, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s. I do have thousands of CDs. Threw all my records out.) PK always had a good, matronly way about her, which served her well as an editor. She was a good friend, too. A lot of us into the local music scene would spend hours in her apartment listening to advance copies of albums we knew were incredible. For some reason, I distinctly recall drunkenly dozing off one night in her La-Z-Boy while Camper Van Beethoven’s “Good Guys and Bad Guys” played on MTV’s new-wave show.

After college, I moved to NYC, and she went back home to Connecticut, where she immediately got an editing job at a magazine, which I assume she’s still at all these years later. It became a habit for me to take the Metro North train up there for regular visits, which was a cool weekend getaway. I got along fine with her parents, flinty, hard-as-nail Yankee types from New England. PK stayed at home at first because she couldn’t afford to move out on her lousy editing pay, on top of which real estate in most of Connecticut is obscenely over-priced. (She eventually got her own place near-by when her pay improved.) Our visits were usually us getting caught up on new music and movies, on top of sampling local restaurants and such. Good, relaxing visits for the most part.

What happened? I don’t know. All I know is that right after 9/11, it became obvious that she was blowing off not just me, but a handful of people she knew from college – simply staying out of contact, not returning calls or emails. In my case, that was real bad timing, as I was feeling emotionally devastated for a few months after 9/11, as most New Yorkers were. Nearly everyone I knew that night or the following day checked in to see if I was still alive – not PK. That silence stretched into months. A mutual friend from college checked in to see if anything was wrong with her. Nope. Nothing wrong. Sorry to be out of touch. Will be better about this in the future. That was the last he heard from her.

Did this come out of left field? For me it did. For our mutual friend, who was a bit closer to PK than I was, he was on the receiving end of some strange tirades that hinted at lunacy. I only saw this once, when both he and I visited PK. No one was there to pick us up at the train station at 9:00 on a Friday night, so our friend called PK’s mom and asked what was going on. Apparently, PK’s mom freaked, didn’t appreciate the way he was speaking to her. (I have no idea if he was in any way belligerent … both of us were kind of peeved to come all that way and find no one there waiting for us). Passed it on to PK, who should have been there to pick us up but apparently was out running an errand. (She got her times mixed up.) PK blew up at our friend in the car, really lighting into him, bringing up all kinds of other weird stuff that I wasn’t privy to, and all I could think was, “Man, this is some real left-field bullshit she’s laying on him.”

But that was the only hint I had through all those years. Again, I don’t know why people do or don’t do the things they do. Why did PK choose to cut-off a handful of people from her college days? I have no idea. None of us had done anything to merit this. If it was her idea to start over with a new bunch of friends, got news for you, that’s something you don’t do in your late 40s (the age she was at when she made this choice). One thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that if you have people in your life you can count on, it’s a good idea to keep them around, you don’t throw people out unless they give you a damn good reason to do so. None of us gave her any reason.

The last one is AR, who worked on the “business” side of the newspaper. Not sure why she did this – she, too, was another very good writer, but had always been raised with a strong sense of business acumen. She minored in one of those “business” areas along with her English degree. I should have done the same, but guess what, I’ve probably learned as much shit, and more, as any business minor has, just by working in NYC offices and keeping my eyes open. AR was also a slutty sorority girl (pardon the redundancy), drunk a lot, very much into that scene, which was filled with drunk/stoned girls from the suburbs, chunky and depressed, looking to get back at their fathers. Which is no crime – I think it was at that time with all of us stuffed-shirt English majors, but I’ll bet those frat boys and sorority girls had a ball for the most part. I could still do without the stereotypical mentality, but I’ve met plenty of now-sane people who went this route in college.

She and I constantly flirted around at college, but nothing ever really came of it. Ditto a weekend when I visited her in Harrisburg, where she took her first job with a phone company – it just didn’t feel right to go in that direction. This all happened in that strange area of post-college life before I moved to New York, so I was probably doing jack shit back in Pennsylvania, waiting for the next move. When I moved to New York, that encouraged her to do so a year later, and we became fast friends again.

So I got to see her do her “That Girl” thing – every chick who moves here from somewhere else thinks she’s Marlo Thomas. Which usually ends the first time she catches some old pervert jerking off in a raincoat as he leers at her on a bus, which was clearly not part of the That Girl opening montage. I got to see her go through all those 20s dating scenarios: drunken, uni-browed firemen, a shady Puerto Rican guy she met in the gym who only operated in cash, a Puerto-Rican Irish guy who was trying to franchise a Domino’s pizza place, an Irish guy who was just a typical Irish bum but won over hearts with his accent, a weird carpenter from Westchester County who always reminded me of Corky, the retarded kid from the 80s TV series, Life Goes On.

Through it all, we stayed friends, although I found myself getting annoyed by two things. One, even though I’d been there longer than she had, and never played this up, she tried to position herself as “The New Yorker.” Which struck me as the kind of annoying thing people who come here do when they have no real personality of their own. You see this shit all the time. People acting like really rude pigs, trying to get over on you, when you know this poseur grew up in some Midwestern suburb. Everyone who moves here goes through that phase, but most of us grow out of it fast and eventually identify ourselves more with where we’re from. Some people latch on to that ersatz personality – like women who identify a little too heavily with Sex in the City – and it becomes who they are, which means you can never reach them again.

Two, she got a little too far into that “business minor” mindset, making a good bit of coin in her time here while turning into the consummate business woman. But even then, in her early 30s, she hit some kind of road bump, must have realized she wasn’t too happy, sold her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (bad move) and moved to Colorado. I don’t know – guess she thought she was going to fuck some John Denver type guy and see God in a wheat field or something. But it didn’t happen. She came back to New York about two years later, got a marketing job at a paper company that was a major step down from the high-tension/long-hour path she’d been on. I recall in her 20s she had constantly carried on about wanting to start a big family, four or five kids, and I think she realized that would never happen with the kind of life she had been living here. It seemed she came back here with her head on straight.

But not really. All that time in her 20s, she was prone to losing touch with me, and other people in her life, for no obvious reason. I’m not a stickler with keeping in touch; I don’t see it as a game of ping pong where I hit the ball over the net, and you hit it back. Sometimes people lose touch for weeks, or even months. I understand that. But some people … if you don’t contact them, then you never hear from them again. And when it gets to that point, that’s where you decide how important that person is, and by simple attrition, the answer becomes “not very” after a few years. This gave me much more trouble in my 20s. I recall writing her impassioned letters, that we were fading out of each other’s lives, and this was a very bad thing, a dangerous precedent to set.

I’d laugh at those letters if I read them now over their heightened sense of drama. Some people just fade out – I’ve learned this. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. And AR chose to fade herself out – not just with me, but I knew this happened with other key people in her life, too. I tried to keep her in the loop when she came back. The impetus for her to come back was 9/11. She called me a few days afterwards during that highly emotional game the Mets played at Shea – the first game in New York since that day – and she was in tears. Oh, I have to get back there, and be closer to people like you again, why did I ever leave, etc., sniff, Tito, get me some tissues.

Well, she came back all right, and immediately started in with the same distancing bullshit she had always been famous for. You tell me! Last time I saw her was a year after that at a CD release party for one of her friends down at CBGB’s Gallery – a nice, quiet little spot just off the main club. I wasn’t that crazy over her friend’s singer/songwriter leanings, which I was up front about, but I strongly doubt that was any huge issue with her, or at least I had never sensed as much. Besides which, I ended up emailing her a day later that the CD had sounded a lot better than the patchy cassettes and demos I had heard before this. And her friend did seem like a pretty good guy. Fuck, all the guys in her life were pretty good guys, me included.

But being a pretty good guy doesn’t mean shit in the long run. Again, she faded out after that. Never heard from her after a few email exchanges, all funny and friendly, as usual. Not quite sure how to put a finger on that situation. I can see now the same thing happened a handful of times in our 20s, and the only reason it kept happening was that I kept at her to hang around.

So you can see, on top of all those college friends who simply faded into the mist of the past, some of them went there awkwardly, strangely, in ways that I’m never going to fully grasp. Does it bother me now? In some ways, sure, but on the other hand, I wonder what in the hell goes through a person’s mind to get that careless with other people. The college friends I still have check in and out every now and then – most far away, or so wrapped up in their own lives that checking in is like coming up for a breather for them. I appreciate their sanity and hope they get the same sense of comfort from mine. Because, for the life of me, if you find yourself on the outside of my life, I’ll find some way to make that crystal clear to you and not leave any doubts as to why this happened – and it will have to be over some very bad shit. Not on a god-damned whim. I think that’s what bothers me more than anything.