Sunday, September 28, 2008

That Song: “Like a Friend” by Pulp

One of the odd things about music and emotions is that they don’t seem to connect as strongly as you get older. It’s harder for me as an adult to point at certain songs as milestones or markers in life, indicative of a person or situation from that time. There are many songs like that from my childhood and teenage years. I don’t know why that is. I’m listening to far more music now than when I was a kid – music of all kinds, my breadth and understanding of it having grown in ways I’d never have anticipated. Maybe it’s too much music? Because I can recall being a kid and getting stuck on 45 singles, and doing nothing but sitting there and listening, through my Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones, staring at the turntable, for hours on end. I can’t focus like that anymore on one song.

But every now and then … a song or band will break through and nail it. One of the strongest instances of that came in the late 90s, coincidentally tied into my trip to Scotland detailed in the previous post. When I was over there, I was buying CDs like crazy – every time we’d hit a store, I’d walk out with a handful. I recall Castle had just reissued the first eight of those long-deleted Kinks albums from the 60s, but only in the UK – I came back with all of them, and then some. The people in customs must have thought I was a CD merchant by all the stuff I had packed in my huge suitcase.

One thing I had noticed while in all those Scottish music stores: a poster for a new album by a band called Pulp – This Is Hardcore. A striking poster, of a beautiful, naked blonde haired woman who looked ghastly, like a corpse, face down, on a sofa. She almost looked like a mannequin. I new vaguely of Pulp – they were nowhere near as big in the U.S. as they were in the U.K. “Common People” had made the rounds of few mix tapes among my friends – I liked it. (After my Pulp transformation, I would recognize it as one of the best songs of the 90s, and one of the best working-class songs ever.)

I didn’t think much of it, but when I got back to America, a few weeks later, I was in my favorite used CD haunt in Manhattan, Sounds on St. Marks Place. The mid-to-late 90s were a boom-time in the used CD trade – I could find just about any release, generally for $4.00 to $8.00, in those bins. (This was just before Napster exploded and changed everything.) I haven’t been to Sounds in eons but assume it’s still there. From about 1993 through 2000, I was there at least once a week and buying great used CDs by the handful. As fate would have it, I saw that same Pulp album in their used bin for $3.99, and figured what the hell.

Little did I know I had just bought my favorite album of the 90s. When I got home and put it on, from the first listen, I was floored. Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer and lyricist, just nailed it on that album – he has since mentioned that was the most depressing, haggard time of his life, that he was blown out by the major step-up in fame brought by their previous album, Different Class, and was either high or emotionally numb most of the time. You can hear that in some of the songs of the album, but you can also hear a deeply-talented songwriter working through his condition and leaving traces of humility, grace and that quiet, British working-class sense of just trying to get by.

“Help the Aged” is the signature song from the album for me – a bit of a put-on, but in it, the recognition that we all get old, and that old person you’re watching shuffle down the street, once upon a time, was just like any young person struggling with life. When Cocker sings help the aged, he’s really singing, “Help me.” My favorite line, simply stated: “You can’t run away from yourself.” He senses he’s going off the rails and feeling just as defenseless and forgotten as anyone in a retirement home.

“Glory Days’ is another great one, in which Cocker recognizes the glory days everyone fawns over nostalgically are really a lot of down time and bullshit, that must seem like heaven when life gets more hectic and responsible. He recognizes the laziness of youth (“I could be a genius/If I just put my mind to it/And I could do anything/If only I could get around to it.”) and accepts it on its own terms. The strength of both songs, and the whole album, is the heroic production – each sounds like an anthem – dramatic build-ups to big choruses, walls of electric guitar, soaring solos, banks of keyboards and big melodies … all backing up a guy who’s singing about how befuddled he is with himself and the world.

At that time in my life, early 30s, I really needed to hear that message, because I was feeling much the same way. About to pack in a job that was wearing me out with the stress level. Not the sleek, untroubled youth who landed in New York a decade earlier. I was feeling at wit’s end and not seeing any way out, save to stop and gather my wits for a few months (which I did, at great financial expense!). I gather Jarvis Cocker was roughly the same age as me and had similar mixed emotions towards his life at the time, albeit his involved going through the meat grinder of fame and nearly losing his mind. Well, you rarely get famous working in an office, but you do get pushed hard for big bucks sometimes, so the scenarios aren’t all that disparate. You feel like you're living someone else's life, not your own, and that life sort of blows.

But the last song on the album was the one that got me. I should note that the American version of the album was different from the British, which ended rightfully on the big close-out ballad, “The Day after the Revolution.” The American version tacked on a soundtrack song called “Like a Friend” from the movie Great Expectations starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke. (I still haven’t seen it and don’t intend to.) I’m sure Cocker and the band couldn’t have been pleased with this as it disrupted the flow of the album …

… But what a song! For me, "Like a Friend" was THE Pulp song, a song I played repeatedly the first few weeks and can still play now repeatedly. Like the other songs on the album, it starts innocently enough, a slow ballad with Cocker pining over a woman who doesn’t seem to give a shit about him, recognizes she has no feelings for him or sees him as “just a friend” but ultimately doesn’t care and pledges to go on hanging in there, even though he knows she’s Ms. Wrong.

But 1:42 into the song, things kick into dramatic overdrive, a churning rhythm guitar hooks up with a pounding snare drum, lead guitar weaves circles around each, the drums pick up the pace, hitting harder, and then Cocker lays it all out:

You are the last drink I never should drunk.
You are the body hidden in the trunk.
You are the habit I can't seem to kick.
You are my secrets on the front page every week.
You are the car I never should have bought.
You are the train I never should have caught.
You are the cut that makes me hide my face.
You are the party that makes me feel my age.
Like a car crash I can see but I just can't avoid.
Like a plane I've been told I never should board.
Like a film that's so bad but I've gotta stay til the end.
Let me tell you now, it's lucky for you that we're friends.

If you’ve downloaded the track, you can hear how exciting the song grows when the pace picks up and Cocker launches into his litany of hard truths. Of course, the strength of the song is it’s a love song – a demented, skewed one, much in the same vein as “Every Breath You Take” by The Police.

And I think we’ve all been there, unfortunately! Probably more than once. The song made me recall S, a beautiful Asian girl I fell hard for in my 20s, and spent the next 2-3 years falling in and out of touch with, usually predicated upon whichever boyfriend was falling out of favor with her, and her desire to have a sane man in her life. The most dramatic turn came the night the U.S. launched Desert Storm against Iraq (January 17, 1991 ... thank you, Wikipedia), with her phoning me about two in the morning and choosing that odd time to get back into it with me, whatever “it” was, and I recall those few months after being pretty good times with her, a nice connection, but as time wore on, the usual “where is this thing going/most likely nowhere” vibe rolled around, only this time, I made a very hard call and ended it, much to her surprise. And mine – I don’t think I grew a set of balls until that moment.

But she was “that girl” in a sense of someone who drove you nuts, whom you know was bad for you, but, christ, you just couldn’t stop being drawn towards her. The siren calling your ship through the fog to the rocky coast! The thing was, we got along swimmingly, she really got my sense of humor, I could make her laugh just by looking at her a certain way, and I had a sense of her artistic inclinations and encouraged her every step of the way, which I gather was something not many people were doing in her life. I remember after I called everything off with her, months later, I wrote her a letter really laying into her, but I think the greater reality is I should have had the previously-noted testicular growth moment 2-3 years earlier the first time I let her know my feelings were more than “friendly” and that first gray area rolled in like a years-long bank of fog. I should have been smarter, but I just wasn't.

In essence, you never stop loving certain people, you just get older and wiser, and recognize when it’s time to cut and run, or when it’s time to hang around. Of course, my issue since then has been developing the “hang around” trait which tends to get burned out of you after a few situations like that. That sort of balance, or more accurately tug of war, between cynicism and allowing yourself to feel genuine emotion, is the heart of Jarvis Cocker’s work, and the song “Like a Friend.” I’ll link to another song, maybe even a better song, that I’m sure Jarvis Cocker would acknowledge as being such: “Just Another High” by Roxy Music. If we could all pull such gems from the rubble of doomed relationships, the world would be a better place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Lisa Swims with Dolphins

In the spring of 1998, I visited Scotland for a week, staying with my internet friend Ian and his family in Arbroath, on the east coast near Dundee. At the time, I thought I'd be visiting routinely, but I haven't been back since, much to my regret. I really liked Scotland, despite the weather: the people, the lay of the land, just about everything. I remember the odd, floating shade of green you'd see on the hills on a misty day, which was just about every one. I'd love to get back to that place. But in the meantime, here's a story I wrote about my trip at the time which must have got shot down by the NYPress. It's not a bad read at all -- I've done some minor editing of details that ring false 10 years on (mainly instances where I mimicked how Scottish people talk, a bad affectation of my early 30s). But most of it is "as is" -- as are the events described. (I have a "Lisa Swims with Dolphins" photo, but unfortunately no scanner right now to drop a picture into the article -- take my word for it, graffiti looks the same everywhere.)


“Where’s a hyme?”

The old woman had asked me a question I couldn’t quite fathom. I had just gotten off a 7-1/2 hour red-eye flight from JFK, filled with crying babies and assorted asshole American tourists, and rushed to my reserved room at a bed-and-breakfast on Glasgow’s west side. After greeting me at the door of the beautiful old house and discovering I was an American, she asked that odd question.

Hyme? Hymen? I knew where a hymen was, but didn’t think it would make for appropriate conversation.

“Excuse me?”

“Where’s a hyme, laddie?”

“A hyme?”

“Aye. Where’s a hyme?”

“I don’t know.”

She stared at me as if I was insane.

And so began my week in Scotland, although I was to spend only my first and last days in Glasgow, a city with the best cab drivers in the world (as they’ll humbly inform you) and an insane accent guaranteed to drive Rex Harrison into a foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy. I can picture him running down Sauchiehall Street -- wild-eyed, beating strangers with his cane and screaming, “What the fuck are you trying to say?”

Most of my week was spent on the rainy, windswept east coast of Scotland -- County Angus, Arbroath, in particular, a small town north of Dundee which was once a fishing village and still has a few lonely boats moored on the docks. I was visiting my friend Ian, a newspaper editor, and his wife and four sons.

On the long drive in from Glasgow, stopping to see Rob Roy's humble grave on the edge of the Highlands (with the ass-kicking inscription: "MacGREGOR DESPITE THEM"), Ian explained to me that having been to the States, he figured I'd find life in general to be much the same, but there would still be plenty to tickle my American sensibilities.

No sooner had he said that then while driving past what was among the worst neighborhoods in Dundee (looked like Forest Hills after the streetsweepers had been through), I glanced at a wall which had this graffiti: LISA SWIMS WITH DOLPHINS.

"What in the hell is that supposed to mean? Lisa swims with dolphins?" I asked.

"I don't know," Ian responded, "there aren't any dolphins to speak of in the North Sea. Richie, is that a new band in town?"

Richie, Ian's 17-year-old who had been sitting quietly in the back seat, mumbled, "I don't think so. If they are, they must be terrible with a naff name like that."

I pictured a girl from those barren-looking council estates, in her cheap Adidas track suit, frolicking in the warm Gulf Sea waters with Flipper, far from a troubled life in her rainy, crime-ridden part of town.

Thankfully, Arbroath wasn't as hard a town. I don't think I started getting a true feeling for Scotland until I went running through the fields around town on my first full day there. Ian laid out a five-mile route for me, and I found myself on country lanes and open fields so much like the rolling hills of my home in Pennsylvania that I expected my brother to drive by in his pick-up and offer me a lift.

It was a strange feeling I never quite shook -- that I had been there before, although it was a foreign land. That first day it was clear, the last time I saw the sun until I came back to America a week later. From then on, it was rain. Sometimes drizzle. Sometimes a downpour. On colder days, mixed with snow. And the worst, falling sideways with that wicked North Sea wind.
After the rain, the next thing I noticed was the faces. It didn't seem to matter whether it was hard-faced, working-class kids in track suits or elderly mums with strollers, but there seemed to be a certain kindness that shone through, or at least an acceptance of life that I don't see much of in New York. I knew it was bullshit, as some of those hard-faced kids would no doubt be just as nasty as their American counterparts. But I often caught myself looking at people a beat too long, feeling like I was looking at childhood pictures, something I felt I had lost, rather than actual people.

Ian's youngest, Ian Jr., had that look. He reminded me of Tiny Tim -- the Dickens character, not the singer. One rainy morning we sat in the TV room and watched Full Metal Jacket on video, with me explaining what I knew about Vietnam and certain Americanisms that came up in speech. He would giggle in delight at the way I could predict lines and state them in an over-bearing American accent ("Is that you John Wayne -- is this me?").

While sitting there, I had remembered a small present in my suitcase, an American flag pin I bought from a deaf person in the airport (with the attached card stating "thank you for supporting the deaf"), so I went to my room and brought it over, explaining how I had purchased it.

Ian's eyes lit up for a moment, and then he looked glum and said, "There's a great bit of sadness in this, isn't there, Bill?" To which I replied, "Yes, Ian, there is. There's a great bit of sadness in New York." He seemed heartbroken for a moment -- hardly what I had expected from a child over-joyed with anything American. His response brought back those vague memories of the hundreds of homeless people I'd stepped over or simply avoided in New York in the 80s. There was no easy way to explain something like this to a boy who'd never seen anything remotely like a subway car late on a winter's night filled with sleeping, tattered forms. I think he saw this in my face and told me how glad he was to have something so "cool."

Earlier he had told me that he thought Courtney Cox was "hot," as I had inquired about her poster in his room, and I could imagine him having tea and biscuits with her in that bullshit café on Friends, over-joyed and excited to be next to a beautiful American girl he only ever saw on TV.

That seemed to be the running theme of the week -- Ian and his sons' fascination with all things American. Simon, his oldest at 23, and Richie, the 17-year-old in Chuck E. Taylor hi-tops, were both in punk bands emulating the sounds of The Ramones and The Beach Boys. (A few years later, I would get Joey Ramone's autograph for them, at a Kinks tribute show in New York, asking Joey to sign it to Simon and Richie in Scotland. He asked me how to spell "Richie" in that thick Queens accent of his. I told him, and he spelled it wrong anyway.)

Ian's wife Alice and his 21-year-old, Andrew, were about the only ones who didn't fawn over American pop culture, despite Ian's fanatic, near-lifelong devotion to Bob Dylan. It was strange to drive through all those remote, Local Hero style fishing villages along the North Sea coast with Dylan whining about Pretty Boy Floyd or Hattie Carroll on the tape deck. (Ian plans on taking the boys to Glasgow in June to see Dylan and Van Morrison play at the SECC, a big day for him as Dylan is one of the few musical reference points he shares with them. When I asked Simon how he felt about the upcoming show, he answered, "Dylan's all roit. But, ach, I cannae fookin' stand tha' fat paddy!")

Simon and I hit it off, as I was one of the few people in the country to point out what goat's urine Budweiser is. Unbelievably, in a land filled with aged malt whisky and fantastic microbrews (my favorite being the perversely-named Bishop's Finger), all the kids swear allegiance to the King of Beers and Miller Lite. I know it's because of the American allure, and I hope for their sake Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schaeffers don't find their rancid ways to their shores.

In the previous paragraph I wrote "aged malt whisky" as opposed to "fine malt whisky." And here's why.

I've never been much of a whisky drinker. Every time I try, it makes me feel like I have hazardous fumes in the back of my throat. Frankly, I can see myself becoming as much a connoisseur of gasoline as whisky.

All week long I'd been sampling Scottish delicacies. Haggis: not bad at all, even if it contains the stomach lining of lambs, I quite enjoyed it. Real fish and chips, with lots of salt and vinegar, wrapped in old newspapers, gruffly served up by some guy who makes Bob Hoskins look and sound feminine: fantastic. Irn-bru, Scotland's premiere soft drink: tasted a bit like Mountain Dew. I missed out on deep-fried Mars Bars (dipped in batter and fried in the chips bin you'll find at any fish-and-chip shop) and Arbroath's famous smokies (simply smoked haddock -- at night, the town smelled faintly of burning hickory from all the smokie shops).

Every night found Ian trying to break me in on whisky, generally after a few glasses of wine with dinner, and before a trip to the pub for a few pints of anything from Guinness, to Tennants 70/80 Schilling, to McKuens. We'd sit at his dining room table with the bottles in front of us, both with our glasses half full, a small kettle of water next to mine to cut the whisky if I found it too strong.

"Ah, life is good, isn't it Bill?" Ian would ask rhetorically while taking a healthy sip from his glass.
I'd give a sputtering response that sounded like Lou Costello seeing a ghost.

I wouldn't say it was a futile effort, but by the time Coronation Street came on the TV at 7:30, I was more than glad to beat ass out of that dining room and fret with the rest of the nation over the show's most-beloved character, Dierdre, who had been wrongly imprisoned and ended up front-page news on real newspapers all over Great Britain.

Well, that last night, we had to do it up right. All week long we got tipsy, but I could sense a big one coming on, as we had to somehow mark my time there with a staggering night out. Simon came in from Dundee especially for the event, bringing his girlfriend Dawn along. The plan of action was to walk down to the highly-esteemed Foundry Bar, an Arbroath pub famous for its Friday night celtic jam sessions.

Ian and I had been down to the Foundry two nights earlier. Along with the bartender and two old men, who turned out to be the pianist and one of the fiddlers who would turn up on Friday, we were the only ones there. Some Bob Villa-style BBC show was on the TV over the bar, and that was about all that was happening.

Friday night wasn't much different, except there were a few more locals gathered around the bar.

"I don't understand it, Bill," Ian apologized, "this place used to be so crowded on a Friday that you sometimes had to stand in the street to hear the band play."

It didn't matter to me, as when we entered the back room of the bar, there they were, the award-winning Scottish National Ceiliedgh Band. Either that, or a bunch of senior citizens got lost on their way to a shuffleboard tournament. The average age of the players must have been 65. A pianist, a banjo player, a few accordionists and fiddlers. All gathered in a small circle in the back of the bar, by themselves, chatting and taking the piss out of each other.

I think when any celtic music fan dies and goes to heaven, after his well-earned time in limbo, he will go to a place much like The Foundry Bar in Arbroath on a Friday night. The gaggle of locals all seemed to think it was either a bit of a joke or dull. But for me, it was incredible. No cover charge. Pints galore. After a few moments of idle banter, the main fiddler would strike up a note, the pianist would roll a melody, and everyone fell in behind, like tired old greyhounds chasing a rabbit. They sawed away all night, quite beautifully. Every piece ended with a thud on the piano, and the process would be repeated again and again, with the chat sessions growing slightly longer and more animated with the passing pints and hours.

I told the banjo player that he'd do well in America doing what he was doing there for free. He winked and said, "Don't go telling the owner that, otherwise he'll charge admission, and not even the bartender will show up!"

Ian later told me that the banjo player had been a folk singer in the early 60s, and that Dylan had heard him playing an old Scottish folk song while he was playing a coffee house in Glasgow and "borrowed" the melody to write "Bob Dylan's Dream." He also told me that if I asked him about it, the man would deny it to his grave, as he was a major Dylan fan and didn't want to cast any aspersions on the man's great name.

It hit me afterwards how discussing the song in that setting was incredibly appropriate. "Bob Dylan's Dream" is about a grown man looking back on the camaraderie and friendships of his childhood and yearning for that sense of belonging. In one line, he recalls sitting in a circle with his friends, and that simple feeling being the one that haunted him the most.

Here was a circle of musicians, most well over 50, sitting in the back of a bar, no one paying them any mind, finding immense pleasure in each other's company, and playing together for no profit, surely as they must have been doing so every Friday night for years gone by. A refutation of Bob Dylan's dream, if ever there was one.

At 11:00, we bid the band a good night, a wave of thank yiz for clappin' and raised bows followed, and went off to find Simon and Dawn, who had gone off to another bar to shoot pool. This is where I lost count of my drinks, as I was already going on a few glasses of dinner wine, the after-dinner whisky, some Belgian beer Ian had sitting around in pony bottles, Strongbow Cider, and Tennents 70/80 Schilling. I decided at the pool table that it was time to drop the hammer with my black friend from Ireland, Guinness Stout, which has a funny way of turning me into Lon Chaney, Jr.

I spent the rest of the evening growing exponentially drunker and getting my ass kicked all over the pool table. Scottish balls are smaller, in more ways than one, as were the pool tables, and I was out of my element. Much light was made of my excuse of bigger American balls as the impetus behind my shoddy performance. At night's end, I was in a tense game of eight-ball with Dawn, who should have been pounding me into submission, when I made this miraculous shot on the eight ball, banking it off a cushion and running it down the length of the table into a corner pocket.

"Kiss my American ass!" I cried out, brandishing my pool cue like Braveheart his sword.

Everyone laughed at me and had another round, at my expense.

Oh, if the night had ended there, it would have been a fine memory. We somehow made it back to Ian's place, passing a small pond in the middle of town on which two swans were silently gliding, and after a few drunken minutes of trying to watch TV and chat, decided to hit the sack.

Alone in my room, thoughts ran through my head. Of America. It had been a humbling experience to come here, and I found myself thinking of home. I heard Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and imagined pictures of returning POWs kissing the airport tarmac in San Diego. The Beach Boys, Charles Manson, Billy Graham, Bill Clinton, Charlie's Angels, Pee-Wee Herman, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne-- I saw them all in my room. Drive-ins, Jesus bumperstickers, boxing gloves, steel guitars, fuzzy dice, graffiti, baseball hats and thigh masters. New York City, Mount Rushmore, New Jersey Turnpike in the wee-wee hours, Key West at sundown, Vegas at night, Graceland, the Grand Canyon and Route 66. It was getting mighty crowded in that room.
I thought of Martin Luther King and his dream. And Neil Armstrong planting old glory on the surface of the moon.

So I took one giant leap for mankind and vomited all over the bedroom floor. I was on my knees, as if I were in a Baptist revival down South, or giving head at the Chicken Ranch in Reno. I was testifying for all of America, letting these wiley Scotts know exactly where I was coming from, and what to expect from this great nation. It all came out. Red, white, blue -- and a few colors I couldn't quite classify. The original thirteen colonies, and bits of the meatballs I had earlier that night, which weren't quite as appealing going the other way.

I caught a good bit of it in my hands and dumped it into the wastecan by the door, but I certainly didn't get it all and gazed in horror at the mess I had made on my friend's immaculate carpet. Christ, I thought, what kind of sick animal am I? (An American.) Who would do such a thing as this? (An American.) Who's going to clean up this foul mess? (A Scottsma -- no, an American.)
I felt like I should have been stumbling around with a god damn bell around my neck. It was early in the morning, and I must admit, as always, after a good blow like that, I felt fantastic, as if I had a new lease on life. The next morning, I made sure I was the first one up. Luckily, Ian was the second, and rather than dance around it, I confronted him with the ugly truth, to which he laughed and replied, "Ach, it's not the end of the world, I'll get you a bucket from the shed. No need to worry, Bill, happens to the best of us."

And that is why I love Scotland. Had he done the same to me in America, I would have thrown a bale of hay in the backyard and invited him to graze on it, after setting a torch to the pulled-up carpet and bed sheets. Ian and Alice handled it as if I had simply spilled a glass of water on the floor, as opposed to my guts.

"It's all your fault anyway, Ian, for trying to break Bill in on whisky!" Alice chided.

"Ach, I guess I'm responsible for Watergate, too?" he replied.

"No," I said, like a politician who had been caught with his pants down and beat the rap, "it's all my fault My grasp exceeded my reach. Or whatever that's supposed to mean."

We got on the road to Glasgow later in the morning, after bidding goodbye to the boys on that rainy, windy morning, standing in the doorway with Dawn and Alice.

Driving past the North Sea for the last time, I noticed a tree on the horizon. The kind of tree I had seen all week long in that part of Scotland -- bare-branched, from what Ian told me, year round, and bent over at a peculiar angle. He said the wind was so strong and constant by the sea that the tree had simply grown into that shape, hunched over and gnarled, to survive. It looked as if one terrible wind had blown it halfway over, and it simply stuck itself in that position for an eternity.

I think I saw all of Scotland in that tree. A stark, beautiful sight, however cruelly twisted it may have appeared on the horizon.

By the way, the old lady in Glasgow was asking me, "Where's your home," and Lisa Swims with Dolphins is an acronym for LSD.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cellphone Assholery

Like many people, I’ve been railing against wayward cellphone users for a few years now. (For the record, I have one. I don’t even have a landline. I use it sparingly, rarely in public, and if I do, wherever I’m at, I pull over to avoid hindering/bothering people around me and try to create some small space of privacy. If I’m in conversation with someone, I will not answer a cellphone, unless it’s my Mom calling.) My issue? Simply that much like drugs or big money, cellphones amplify assholery. If you’re normally an asshole, these things will make you an even bigger asshole.

Two recent experiences, both in my neighborhood, have me believing this now more than ever. Don’t get me wrong – I deal with assholes on cellphones every day. Embarrassing personal conversations at top volume in public. Total lack of concern for anyone else in the immediate vicinity. Inability to grasp spatial relations in tight quarters. It’s an all-day, every-day thing in New York, the Valhalla of arrogant assholes. But it’s reaching a point with me now where the level of arrogance is at fever pitch – or maybe it’s just me getting tired of this nonsense.

The first situation was very brief, took place outside a bagel store in the neighborhood just after work one day. Usually later in the week, I pick up a few bagels for breakfast the next two mornings. The bagel store that opened up on the main drag is great, one of the few stores that caters to all social strata, with good prices and kosher bagels. In the mornings, it’s filled with Con Ed and construction workers packing on carbs for their work day, and on weekends is overflowing with the younger, more-moneyed gentry trying to get over hangovers and such.

As I was heading towards the bagel store, I noticed something odd: a rotund white woman standing in the doorway, on the sidewalk. On the younger side. Just standing there with her hands cupped in front of her. As I got nearer, I could see that she was texting a message on a cellphone. Directly in the doorway so that no one could leave or enter without encountering her.

Now, if I have to explain why this is offensive, stop reading now, we’re living in two different worlds. I don’t know how some cellphone users have gotten it into their heads that wherever they are is perfectly acceptable to stop and do their thing, even if they are blocking passage in a public place. I see this ALL THE TIME in Manhattan on crowded sidewalks, but not so much in Astoria. When I do see this kind of arrogance in Astoria, a vast majority of the time, the perpetrator has the look of those annoying white folks who have moved here in the past few years that everyone who already lives here, save real estate brokers, wishes would move straight out again. Hipster, yuppie, whatever – a certain breed of pampered white folks should strongly reconsider living in 718 neighborhoods, because their self-absorbed lack of concern is the exact antithesis of street smarts.

Understand that from the moment I saw this woman until I got to the door of the bagel store, we’re talking a good 30 seconds – a long time to stand still in front of a door. Ask yourself: have you ever positioned yourself in front of the door of a store (so that no one could enter or leave) during business hours and stood there for more than five seconds? Probably not, unless you were holding it open for someone in a wheelchair. This woman was clearly standing there for an indefinite period of time, much like a homeless person begging for change who wants you to deal with him.

I walked by her and opened the door to the bagel store, just enough to squeeze in, and as I did, the door brushed against this woman’s calf. And I mean brushed – I purposely didn’t open the door all the way because I decided, foolishly, that I didn’t want to disturb her. And there was no way I was going to say “excuse me” to someone camped out like this. Bitch, you’re standing in the doorway. You know you’re standing in the doorway. Frankly, if I grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out of the doorway, while this would have been rude, it would have been no more or less rude than what she had been doing.

As the door brushes her calf, she barks out, in a froggy voice, “You know, you could have just said ‘excuse me’ and I would have moved!”

Any number of nasty, tactless retorts entered my mind. Involving weight. And physical beauty, or lack thereof. But her response had me thinking, “Was she waiting for someone to do this just so someone would talk to her?”

I mean, honestly, you’re in the middle of a fucking doorway. You’re blocking people from entering or leaving. You want a confrontation. You demand one. I thought, should I say nothing? “Go fuck yourself” would be too harsh under the circumstances. Granted, she had earned it, but her response had me thinking, this person wants attention, positive or negative, and I don’t even want to acknowledge her presence, wish she’d disappear like someone being beamed up on Star Trek, hopefully to another planet.

“And you could have just moved,” I responded in a tired tone of voice.

Good enough, I thought. I ordered my bagels, came back out. This time, she had moved to the side of the door, so I guess, mission accomplished. She started saying, “Excuse me, excuse me …” in that croaky, weird voice, and I thought, you know, we’ve had enough contact, I’m just going to keep walking here. Which is exactly what I did, without turning around once. She didn’t make the effort to follow me – seeing as how she couldn’t make the effort to get out of the doorway, this was no surprise. Haven’t seen her since – hope to never see her again.

The second situation happened the other night on the subway train. A rainy evening after work. The rush-hour train wasn’t bad – not too crowded, an average trip, still a lot of people. We reach our stop in Astoria, everyone piles out. The problem with my station is it was built years before the influx of subway-using Manhattan office workers, thus even when an average-size crowd of passengers gets off the train, there is always a bottleneck at the steps. It gets uncomfortable sometimes, and even dangerous when people aren’t paying attention, which is often. I haven’t seen anyone plummet down the stairs yet, but there have been a few close calls and a lot of bad manners.

As the crowd is jostling down the stairs, I notice a good-sized guy in front of me moving a little too slowly. By that, I mean people are passing him on the left, and he seems to be shuffling down the stairs as if injured, with his head down. I know that gait, as I’ve seen it countless times before: it’s the walk of someone checking his cellphone on a crowded public staircase.

Do I have to underline how stupid it is to do something like this on an empty staircase, much less one bustling with dozens of people in a hurry to get the hell out of the station and home?

There’s a space of at least three people in front of the guy as others stream around him on the left. I’m right behind him and can’t move due to the stream of people going around him – naturally, I’m peeved. I figure, just keep moving, this horse’s ass will be out of my life momentarily. I can see over his shoulder that he has an iPhone and is checking email messages on it. Again, why it doesn’t occur to people like this that a crowded staircase in a subway station during rush hour is not the time or place to do this is a mystery to me – the same, ever-present mystery that constantly presents itself with arrogant pricks.

I will swear on a stack of bibles that I didn’t try to do this, but somehow, when I was putting my right foot forward, it clicked against the back of this guy’s heel. An innocent action, not a mistake, not anyone’s fault. Frankly, if the guy had been moving at a normal rate of speed, nothing would have happened. I did nothing wrong. He did nothing wrong. As an experienced city dweller, I know this intuitively. No blood, no foul. You move on. I’ve been in his shoes many times – it’s a non-issue.

Unfortunately, this guy didn’t see things that way. He glanced over his shoulder and said, “You could at least say you’re sorry.”

No, I couldn’t. Granted, if I was being a nice guy, if this person wasn’t such an ass, I normally would have mumbled “sorry” just to acknowledge something odd had happened, even though, again, I had done nothing wrong, committed no harm to this person. At this point, I’d pretty much had it and barked out: “Problem is I’m not sorry when you’re checking your fucking email on a crowded staircase.”

Which is the situation in a nutshell. Again, pointing out wrong-doing to people this far gone is a waste of time. In their minds, they are never wrong.

We keep moving, and I can see this guy is stewing. He has an accent – European. Couldn’t place it as French or Dutch. We get out into the station, and I see him glancing over his shoulder every now and then and cursing. Whatever. We’re both exiting through the same stair case to the street (there are four), and I can see as we head down the staircase – amazing how his pace picked up once he put his iPhone away – he keeps turning to look at me, and I’m thinking, buddy, you are doing this all wrong.

We get to the bottom of the stairs, and Van Damme starts in: “You are a piece of shit. You are a disgrace to humanity, fuck you. Fuck you and all ugly, sick people like you.”

Or something like that. Like an over-reacting little child who just got spanked for crayoning wallpaper. I could see if I had pushed him down the stairs, or called his mother a whore, to warrant this type of bitterness, but no. The toe of one of my feet accidentally clipped the heel of one his. And I wouldn’t apologize for this, and in fact let him know why this had happened, that he was so slow and dangerously inattentive in a crowded public place.

“Dude, I’m not sorry. Get over it.”

He couldn’t get over it.

“I should stomp your ass, how about that?” Van Damme countered.

I’m looking at this guy – in a nice sweater, carrying an iPhone – and thinking, boy, you are really fucking stupid. You should never pick a fight when you’re carrying an iPhone. Lose consciousness, and chances are that expensive little toy, and other things, will be leaving your possession. Besides which, within 10 seconds of this guy taking a swing at me, store owners right by the train station and probably more than few people on the crowded rush hour street, would have their cellphones out calling 911. Let’s not even get into the fact that I’ve been boxing for about 15 years and win, lose or draw, I’m going to hit this guy in ways he will feel weeks later.

On top of which, the cardinal rule of ass kicking: if you’re going to fight someone, don’t announce it, just do it. I’ve never seen anyone say “I’m going to kick your ass” and then actually kick someone’s ass. I’ve seen guys say that and engage in silly posturing for a few tense minutes, usually before walking away, muttering recriminations. The real fights I’ve seen just happen, as the guy starting it knows, like a cop pulling his gun to shoot someone, if you’re going to get in a physical confrontation, you want to get a jump on your opponent and do some damage before he has a chance to respond. You don’t announce your intention to do physical harm if you truly mean to do physical harm.

So, Van Damme has just told me he’s afraid to hit me, which is fine, but thinks he can intimidate me with his heavily-accented trash-talking. He sounds like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. I don’t know what to tell a pouty little child like this. Verbal humiliation? This is the stuff of 15-year-olds. I’m a grown-ass man. If you want a physical confrontation, hit me. I’ll give you one.

So I said, “Go ahead and try. I’ll fight back.”

“Fuck you, asshole, pricks like you are ruining the world.”

“That’s right. Please hit me. What are you waiting for?”

If I was an asshole, I’d push him or slap him on the head at this point. But, again, if I was going to (foolishly) fight this guy, I would have hit him square in the face the first time he turned around to look at me and kept wailing on him from there. And I’m thinking, with all the witnesses here, I’d want it on record that this guy took a swing at me, and I defended myself.

“I should kick your ass.”

At this point, I’d had enough. Understand, this whole time, I’m walking, he’s walking with me. I have no intention of stopping. Generally, when I’m near an asshole, my immediate thought is, “let me get away from this asshole.” This was no different. But I had to end this, without getting physical over something so asinine, so I pulled my trump card.

“I’m an off-duty cop, asshole. Take a swing at me, and let’s see where this goes.”

For some reason, this bold-faced lie stopped him in his tracks. We had been both heading north, and he stopped walking, still muttering curses and such, to which I replied, “Blah, blah, blah.”

And that’s where Van Damme finally came to his senses. Realized he was about to get himself in real bad trouble, one way or another. I think when I repeatedly encouraged him to hit me and he didn’t, he grasped that I wasn’t afraid of him, and give the guy credit, he did a little more testosteronally required belly-aching, then wisely let it go. Something he should have done in the first place before acting like victim of the century.

While crass, infantile bastards like this aren’t par for the course in my experience, every now and then … Again, the way this guy was carrying on, you’d have thought I dragged him down the stairs in a headlock. No, I just told him the truth, a truth I’ve experienced many times before, but kept to myself: only the flamingest of assholes would pull out a blackberry style device and check his email messages on a crowded public staircase. There is no debate and no defense of stupidity on this level.

Think this message of sanity will register with Van Damme? I know it won’t. That’s the axis of the self-absorbed assholes’ funhouse world: the rest of the world will always be wrong, and they will always be right. Think I’m getting tired of dealing with people like this? You better believe it. But I don’t see any end in sight. And I know they’re everywhere, not just here!

I’m starting to think it might just be a better idea to leave them alone and learn how to relax, because as I’ve noted a few times, the cardinal rule of city life: avoid meaningless confrontation. I’d like to think there is some meaning here, some lesson learned, but I think I answered my question repeatedly, and it’s a resounding “No!”. Ultimately, it’s more my fault for letting cellphone assholery bother me so when there are plenty of other kinds floating around the streets on any given day. I’d rather not be rude to anyone for any reason – more a karma thing than a physical health one. But people like these two make it real hard.