Friday, July 31, 2009

Walking Underwater

It’s that time of year again, when the city floats into deep summer, and walking around on the weekends gets to be an oddly serene experience. Before I walk down to the gym on Saturday afternoon, I’ll usually putz around on the computer for an hour while having ice tea or Coke Zero, giving me a caffeine buzz that carries over into my half-hour walk. Sometimes when it gets this hazy, I feel like my body will float away with each step, and I’ll be hovering over the neighborhood after a few blocks.

I don’t get that high, but it’s an odd sensation: walking underwater. Sometimes I wonder if it’s safe to walk around like this – the same way I’d be leery of walking around a city on a hallucinogen. But I suspect any jolt to the system, and this place is known for its jolts, would drop me firmly back in reality. But part of the reason for the calmness is the lack of people, either going to the beach or simply on vacation, with a lot of Greeks heading home for a few weeks this time of year.

The Sunday before, I blew off a boxing class that I was going to be 10 minutes late for and instead walked from the Upper East Side of Manhattan down to 14th Street, which isn’t the mind-expanding/neighborhood-jumping experience it once was. Even the length of time I’ve been here (late 1980s), going down the east side of white Manhattan hasn't been that jolting a walk. The only big change is going through the “empty on weekends” midtown area of high-rise office buildings. The rest is affluent Manhattan – and I don’t care where you live there, it takes a truckload of money to live anywhere over there these days. You’ll find isolated pockets that are a bit more gritty, always associated with housing projects, but otherwise, forget it, you could live in a nice-sized house most places in America for what most people are spending on cramped, non-descript, one-bedroom apartments in Manhattan.

And I can feel it when I walk. There’s a blandness to the place now that’s just unforgivable. Most of the people I come across are younger folks heading out to late morning brunches after a hard night of bar-hopping. Must have seen three dozen women pulling the Lindsay Lohan “fedora and hot pants” look. Guys who look like they’re more used to doing this dance at a frat house than a dumpy, shared apartment. Seeing more of this crowd the closer I got to the Village/14th Street was truly depressing – made me miss the stroller nazis and uncomfortable families “sharing quality time” back in the 60s and 70s. Once upon a time, a walk like that would have encapsulated dozens of ethnic and socio-economic classes, all easily identifiable with their neighborhood. Now, it’s more or less a huge white wall of affluence, basically a suburb transplanted back into the city.

I have a much more interesting walk when I head back to Astoria some Friday nights – which I’ll do when daylight savings rolls around each year, weather permitting. Getting up to the 59th Street Bridge, especially during rush hour, is an annoying walk, straight across midtown. Again with the yuppies – there’s an outdoor bar in Bryant Park that really kicks into high gear for happy hour, and man, just passing by there, I can smell the faux testosterone of aging frat boys in polo shirts as I pass, again with the Lohan-inspired fashions among gaggles of red-faced, drunk girls looking to breed with guys whose apartments smell like dust, stale farts and unwashed sweatpants.

The flood of foot traffic on 42nd Street is too much – I nearly bowled over Michael Stipe the other week. Knew it was him, made eye contact with him with that “you know I know who you are” nod. He was dressed like I was, sleeveless t-shirt and shorts, as I deftly side-stepped him, which wasn’t hard as he’s a pretty small guy. Should have blurted out, “Are you guys ever going to make another good album?” But he seems like a nice enough guy, impressive to see him walking around casually like this, and not someone I’d want to hassle for no good reason.

But most people aren’t rock stars traveling incognito – we’re talking tourists, who are always like cattle, and that time of day, office workers scurrying to Grand Central or Penn Station. The streets are buzzing well through the 40s and 50s, and things don’t calm down for me until I hit the 59th Street Bridge, climbing over the annoying barrier at 60th Street to get into the walking/biking lane on the north side of the bridge. (It always reminds me of swinging one leg and then the other over the old picket fence between the Catholic and Protestant cemeteries in my small town back in PA.)

And then it’s like another world. Always windy on the bridge, and I’m never alone up there. Always plenty of walkers, most sane, but the occasional bozo tourists walking three abreast in a very crowded space. The bicyclists can be pretty bad, too. Again, most are fine, but even if 10% are assholes, that implies dealing with a dozen guys who think they’re in the Tour de France, or constantly veering into the clearly-designated walking lane, often too close for comfort and at high speed. I’ve thought of clotheslining one of these pricks to make a point, but it would be more trouble than it’s worth.

In general, the bridge is peaceful, the hum of passing cars, the East River flowing by a few hundred feet below. (The first time I did this walk was 9/11, about the only good realization to come out of that day for me.) It’s a nice experience anywhere in NYC to walk with no one around for a few hundred yards – doesn’t happen a lot, which may be part of the reason I enjoy these Friday walks so much.

Coming off the bridge used to be a grunge walk through the mangy streets on the Queens side of the 59th Street Bridge, and still is for the most part. The first thing I’ll see on my left as I come down the exit ramp is a strip club. And it’s just the nature of that area to be gritty … which doesn’t explain the spate of luxury high-rise condos that have sprung up there over the past five years, each one touting the view of Manhattan, until a new developer builds another high-rise in front of that one. I don’t know who lives in these things, if anyone. The prices are surely extortionate, and this is still a lousy neighborhood, run down on the north side, and nothing but traffic patterns and exhaust fumes in the middle. I gather the gist is proximity to Manhattan, literally one subway stop away, but that doesn’t account for living in a heavily polluted area with zero residential charm or convenience – you have kids here, you can just about be certain they’ll have asthma and other weird diseases.

That area fades out over a quarter mile or so, the last of the strip clubs dwindles into the dog end of Queens Boulevard, and I hook north, simply following the elevated N Train line the rest of the way home. The 39th/36th Avenue area is still downbeat, despite the recent influx of white college grads. Garages, warehouses, beverage distributors, the occasional bodega and hard-assed latin nightclub with bars in the windows. Fading into Broadway, where that Astoria vibe starts, vestiges of Greece, the faces grow steadily whiter. Into 30th Avenue and Astoria Boulevard, now we’re really in Astoria, every side street grows residential, huge Orthodox churches, streets a little cleaner. Up over the Grand Central Parkway in the mammoth Astoria Boulevard subway station, come down the other side in front of the Neptune Diner, and there we are, the southern end of my neighborhood, and it’s back to Ditmars with all the diners, supermarkets and newer foo-foo clubs and restaurants going after the flip-flop yuppie dollar.

By the time I’m done, my ankles are wiped – it’s at least a six-mile hike, and I haul ass every step of the way. By this time of year, my walking tan is in full bloom. You won’t see it unless you get me naked … which means Bill Repsher, the moonlight and you … or you see me in the locker room at the gym. My face is tan, and my arms are tanned from the shoulder down, where the sleeveless t-shirt stops. There’s a ring of tan around my neck, at the collar of the shirt. My legs are tan from the shorts line above my knee down to my ankles. Otherwise, I’m fairly white and hairy, eat your heart out ladies.

Physically, it’s a nice change-up from boxing earlier in the week, which is far more intense, and Saturday is my weightlifting day, which is no walk in the park after sweeping out the landlord’s property in the morning. Christ, I should be like Charlie Atlas with all the shit I do, but I’ve got to do portion control if I’m ever going to get into that sort of top shape again. Which I’d love to after years of looking like a bouncer. But life goes on, and I’m in pretty good shape. Walking’s a good mental work out, too, your mind floats along, as you stay cognizant of your environment, you have to in New York, yet wanders freely as you think about other things, and in many senses simply walk away from all those things as you go along.

I guess in some respects, I’m just like one of those tourists who spend all day walking around New York, save I know how much you walk here, have done it for years, and I’m like a mountain goat in the Alps in that respect. And I’ve learned to be acutely aware of everything going on around me – a lot of these tourists don’t seem to have a fucking clue as to their environment or how to carry themselves – a sense I carry with me wherever I go. But that same sense of wonder is still there, and I’m just as physically exhausted as they are. I have to believe if you’re a tourist coming here, there can’t be a better feeling than flopping down in your hotel room after a hard day of walking all over the city, and you know all you want to do is to get a shower, have a long dinner with a few drinks, hit the sack and sleep like a baby.

Speaking of babies, this last walk, on the Upper East Side, as I was going down a leafy block in the low 90s, I saw a father, a guy probably about my age, teaching his infant daughter how to walk. You could tell by how she moved that she must have just learned how to walk a few days ago, that stumbling sort of gait suggesting each step could end in disaster. She had her arms swinging out in front of her, like a blind man, partially for balance, but mostly to get rhythm. She’s not really looking at anything, eyes sort of rolling around her head as she looks at her feet, the tree next to her, her Dad’s hand, me, a cloud passing in the sky. I have to move to get out of her way, and for once I don’t mind doing this for a Manhattanite, as she at least has the excuse of being new to this walking thing. The kid gurgled as she passed me. I couldn’t help but think we never get past that honest stage of uncertainty, grasping for self assurance, no matter how much we bullshit ourselves otherwise. Of course, we learn to walk with more confidence, and the next time we shit our pants might be a few decades from now, barring unfortunate drinking episodes, but I can't help but think she was onto something.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Heavy Bag Blues

Every now and then, an asshole will show up in one of my boxing classes. Sometimes it will be a guy, but it will just as often be a woman. With guys, you’ll get the hyper-macho jackass who doesn’t know anything about boxing and spends the class pushing the heavy bag with his punches (mark of the novice), shirking the conditioning and walking around with a smug look on his face like all this is beneath him. He rarely shows up again, much to everyone’s relief.

But one of my favorites is the middle-aged woman with an attitude. Usually she’s not that good at boxing either, save that, unfortunately for the rest of us, she’ll show up repeatedly (but never go the distance and become a regular). I had a mild exchange with one the other night in class. The situation was that our instructor was on vacation, and the gym had mistakenly thought he was coming back that day. But I knew that he wasn’t coming back until the next day, which he had told anyone who asked. As a result, there was about a dozen of us standing around at the appointed time, with the gym manager coming in a few minutes later and telling us the situation, and that we could hang around and work-out if we wanted as we (i.e., me) had already hung the bags.

I usually don’t hang around for these situations, because you can get some real bozos in unsupervised sessions. But I had missed Sunday’s class due to the train running late, and I felt the need to hang around and do something. Besides which, one of my boxing pals from Ireland was there for the first time in weeks, and it was nice to chat for awhile. So, half the people left, half stayed, and we all went about our routines, some jumping rope, others doing calisthenics, others hitting the heavy bags. Not as physically demanding as a regular class, but still a reasonable workout.

Towards the end of the class, as I’m merrily pounding a heavy bag, this middle-aged woman walks up to me. I’m willing to bet I’m as old or older than she is, but she looks at least mid-50s. Frumpy, not in good condition. I’ve seen her here before and have noted that she always shows up five to 10 minutes late, the mark of someone who knows the class is front-loaded with harsh, boot-camp style calisthenics and is purposely late to avoid this. Some people do this because they have some type of physical infirmity – a bad knee or back – that prevents them from doing these exercises. I’ve seen a few heavy women do this, too, just because they know that introductory blast of conditioning is too much to handle, and they wisely sit it out. But more often than not, the person is just lazy, not up to it physically, and I wish the instructor would lock the doors and keep horse’s asses like this out of the class, which tends to be over-crowded anyway.

This woman is the latter. Doesn’t appear to be anything wrong her. Is frumpy and egg-shaped, but I’ve seen women with that body type kick ass in these classes. It’s just the way she is, and folks like this usually don’t last, for whatever reason. It’s always a minor annoyance to see them. Remember, this is a group class. As with any other class, you get people clowning around, not taking it seriously, cutting corners, or dragging ass, it has a residual effect on everyone, i.e., I don’t like shitbirds, nor do any of the other regulars.

So, we’re all doing our thing, late in the class, I’m wailing on a heavy bag, really enjoying myself, when she walks over, stops next to me, dead-faced, and exclaims, “You don’t ever throw jabs, do you?”

This is the first time I’ve ever exchanged anything with this woman … and her introduction is a passive-aggressive insult. Even before this … why is she not concentrating on her own workout and instead watching me? And apparently watching me enough to “know” this about me? All I can figure is that you can actually hear me hitting the heavy bag, because I hit hard, when a lot of people in the class, particularly women, don’t hit hard. Which is not an insult. But in my mind, it’s a heavy bag, the object is to pummel the thing as hard and fast as you can. The instructor uses hand pads to perfect combinations. Sparring is for self defense and movement. The heavy bag is for pounding all the shit you have in your system out of it. You have to learn how to cut loose, with near total abandon – and that’s the one crucial thing I see a lot of people in these classes never do. If you never learn to hit hard and fast like that, you’re wasting time. In a real fight? You’re not going to tentatively jab at someone as you would in a boxing match, or score points for well-placed rabbit punches. The heavy bag is the place for you to get in touch with some primal urges. You could be the next bag over, cutting it in half with a chainsaw, and I won’t be paying any attention to you.

And I don’t throw a lot of jabs when I’m on a heavy bag, because the jab is mostly a defensive punch meant to keep an opponent away from you. I have seen guys with unbelievable jabs, and there’s an art form to that; it’s a hard punch to throw anywhere near as effectively as a well-placed hook or upper-cut. Most boxers I see cutting loose on a heavy bag, including the instructor, aren’t over-doing the jab either, because they know they’ll be doing plenty of that in sparring. They’re blasting combinations where the power punches, the cross, hook and upper-cut, come pounding in a lot more frequently … because they’re on a bag, they know this, that they’re hitting an inanimate object, which is not fighting or boxing reality, and the greater lesson here is to learn how to hit hard and fast. On top of all this, most of the bags in the gym are worn out and soft in the jab/upper area of the bag (because that where most people throw their punches as opposed to hitting lower body shots, where the bags tend to be much harder.)

I should have replied, “Why are you watching me?” But I’m in the middle of a workout, sweating profusely, breathing hard because I’m genuinely exerting myself. This woman hasn’t even broken a sweat, and we’ve been working out for close to 40 minutes now. I don’t try to explain anything to her, mainly because I’m insulted that this ass-dragging, out-of-shape, always purposely 10-minutes late d-bag thinks she’s going to tell me anything about boxing. On top of that, in all my years of taking classes, not once have I deigned to drop helpful hints on anyone in any class. Why? Because I’m not the instructor. I see people doing wrong stuff all the time – I’ve already noted what I’ve seen wrong with this woman, and that’s hardly even paying attention to her. It’s none of my business. We’re all there to get a hard workout above all else. I keep that in mind when it comes to lecturing fellow classmates. I just don’t do it – because I recognize what they do, that I’m not an authority figure and in no position to do this.

She then goes on to explain to me how her trainer made her jab for three weeks before he even let her learn any other kind of punch. Huh. For one thing, she needs to get her money back or get a new trainer – that’s the sort of shithead stuff you pull from Rocky movies, he probably had her chasing chickens in an alley, too. For another thing … this bitch has a trainer? Really? The kind of shape she’s in, she can’t even fully function in a group boxing class, and she’s telling me she has a trainer? Generally, when you get a trainer, spending hundreds of dollars for individual instruction, the one benefit, no matter what else happens, is that you get yourself into phenomenal physical condition. It’s part of the deal with individualized instruction. In the past, particularly on weekends in the summer, my instructor would occasionally get me in the gym one-on-one, and those were “point of physical collapse” style workouts since the instructor could concentrate solely on me, dotting every “i” with the calisthenics and working hard on every combination and bag session. If I worked out like that all the time, forget it, I’d be in astonishing physical condition. Not this frumpy, egg-shaped being in front of me. She’s either lying about the trainer, or she might have meant her trainer years ago … when she gave up after three months and started boxing again recently to get “her fire” back.

I had every right to tell this woman to go fuck herself – even if she knew what she was talking about, which she didn’t – but instead I mumbled a few things, yeah, you’re right, I don’t jab so much on the heavy bag. But I’m so annoyed by this nosey jackass that I move to the other side of the bag and ignore her. She has her boxing gloves on. At this point, a few people have peeled off, and she could have her own bag. I’m not sure what possessed her to walk over and give unsolicited advice to someone light years beyond her skill level. She keeps mumbling about her instructor, blah blah blah, importance of the jab, blah blah blah, you’re not doing it right. She has a sour look on her face the whole time. All this is dropped in a condescending tone, as if she was a master of the form doing me a favor, which only underlines to me how deranged her view of the world must be. After awhile, she realizes I’m not listening and saunters away. I’ve learned that’s the only way you can handle people like this: ignore them. I’m not sure what sort of delusional garbage passes through someone’s mind when they do something like that … this is the mark of a person with her head completely up her ass.

This would have been like me going up to a Golden Gloves champ in the middle of his workout and telling him he was doing something wrong. In which case, the guy probably would have kicked my ass, or at least made a very bad scene over someone on a much lower skill level trying to tell him what to do. You just don’t do shit like that! It’s tactless; it’s a mediocre mind not seeing reality. What I’m thinking? She just doesn’t like me! She hears me wailing on a bag, has her attention drawn to me, while she slowly and daintily practices her robotic, predictable combinations, feels insulted in some sense, and thus feels some hoary need to inject herself into my situation … like I’m going to listen to her when I've routinely seen how negligent she is in terms of determination, punctuality, conditioning, simple abilities, etc.?

Of course, I hope this woman never shows up again, but she will. Always 10 minutes late. Standing off to the side, staring into space while the rest of us get run ragged on wind sprints or nasty squat-thrust pushups. I can’t recall when she started showing up, but I gather it wasn’t until the past year or so. Seen her type before, will see her type again, and next time, she might very well be a he … same difference. And I’ll probably be cordial to her if she starts up again with her gibberish. Why? Because I know she won’t be there a few months from now – the greatest lesson I’ve learned from a decade of boxing and applied to life. Bullshit artists don’t last.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Pyramid Scheme That Wasn't

There are so few “legendary” events in our adult personal lives, the kind of which happen routinely when we were kids. There are obvious things, like weddings, funerals, births, etc. Monumental events like 9/11 and natural disasters. But comparatively few of those sort of situations that we’d end up turning into legends as kids: fist fights, first drunks, dozens of weird, memorable moments related to school, etc. Most of adult life is rote work and responsibility – at least mine is.

But every now and then, something happens that you know you’ll be talking about years later. Such an instance occurred with my high-school friends T and J about 15 years ago, had to be early/mid 90s. J was infamous for getting us all into bizarre adventures that we’d curse him for at the time, but somehow knew these things would be shaggy-dog stories one day, and understood this almost immediately.

But this one was T’s doing. T was married to his first wife for a few years at that point, in his mid-20s, with a son and two stepsons. I knew things were rocky when I saw a hole in the paneling of his living-room wall and was informed that his wife had thrown a full beer can at him and missed. This was a bit of a shock to me, as I was just starting my tenure in New York City, and their marriage ceremony was fresh in my mind, a grandiose church affair, huge party at a local hall afterwards. That stuff is one thing, and the day-to-day reality of marriage is another. And sometimes there’s a hole in the living-room wall with a story to tell.

That marriage would peter out a few years later, but at the time, T was married, with kids, working in a more-managerial position at a company in a town about an hour north of our home area, where he had started as an engineer. Making so-so money. (He’s now making great money, especially for back there, but also seems to be under enormous pressure, too.)

T and J were always scheming ways to make more money in their lives. Money was a burning issue between both, a competition of sorts, although neither would have admitted it. To a certain extent, many things were a competition between them. I recall vague stories of measuring penises and such … must have phoned in sick that day … but in that event, J was hung like a horse, T not so much, so I guess that one didn’t pan out so well. It was often my duty to referee when they got too nuts with each other … assuming I wasn’t too busy getting nuts with one or the other. They were much closer friends than I was with either one separately, but prone to fighting much more as a result, as that sense of competition influenced nearly every part of their lives.

One summer, I came back for a visit, and T told both J and I that he had something special planned for us that Friday night. We had no idea what this meant. A strip club? We were going to get laid? Something wild? This was the vibe J and I got from T talking up what we were going to do that Friday. He picked us up at sundown in his VW Rabbit, still blaring Van Halen from his Big Brute speakers, as was the case when we were teenagers a few years earlier.

We drove through the summer night, the sense of expectation growing. We were heading north, towards Danville, a town which was not in our normal driving area. T pulled up the Rabbit in front of a Best Western hotel that seemed pretty crowded. It was a very strange crowd. Half of it was bikers. I don’t mean Hells Angels, but more scraggly, unkempt, chunky middle-aged guys in full biker regalia (leather chaps, denim vests with no shirt underneath, chrome nazi helmets, etc.), hanging out around the entrance and at the bar inside. The other half was guys in tuxedos and women in gowns. It looked as if the hotel was double-booked for a well-to-do wedding reception and biker rally. Both parties were unrelated and clearly couldn’t stand each other. What in the hell were bikers doing hanging out at a Best Western hotel? It was like some bad 80s video ... we were waiting for Night Ranger to come rocking out of the men's room.

T calls out, ‘Hey, Fred, hey, I’m here!” We see a nebbish middle-aged guy in wire-framed glasses and a collared shirt and khakis wave back and walk over to T. Fred looked like the kind of guy who would hang out at a hotel bar, hoping for homely women to get too drunk to notice how meek he was, and then go back for a romp in their room. There was something mildly off about him. What kind of person hangs out at a hotel bar? Not me! Not us! Immediately, J and shot each other a deep “what the fuck” look.

“Ah, you brought your friends, good, good,” Fred said, “unfortunately, it’s total chaos in here tonight, didn’t know there was so much stuff going on here. Where can we go to talk?”

Talk? What on earth were we going to talk about with this guy? I started getting stink-eye from J, believing that T had somehow guided us to a weirdo or pervert of some sort … visions of us waking up in one of the hotel rooms, in a bathtub filled with bloody ice, and a bad stitch job where one of our kidneys used to be.

Well, we were right about the “weirdo” part. Fred formally introduced himself … as a sales rep for Amway. Motherfucker! T had somehow fallen under the spell of an Amway salesman, and was looking to bring us into the scheme. This is something J and I would have never gone for … and I think T knew this by being so cryptic in how he framed the night’s events, keeping us in anticipation of what we were heading up to Danville for.

“Say, I noticed a McDonalds across the parking lot, let’s go there instead,” Fred said cheerily.

I was going to spend a good chunk of Friday night, in my mid-20s bar-hopping prime, sitting in a fucking McDonalds, listening to an Amway salesman’s pitch. I tell myself that these days, I would have just blurted out, “No, no, this ain’t going to happen,” but keep in mind, T was driving, and we were about 45 minutes from home, i.e., if we got weird on him and he responded in kind, we could conceivably have a very bad night thumbing it. It just didn’t seem right to offend T on this topic anyway, as he seemed to genuinely believe this guy was somehow going to enrich his life. It wasn’t as bad as T having a Born Again experience he wanted to share with us, but it was still pretty mind-blowing.

So, we walked over to that McDonalds, got some burgers and fries, and Fred went into his pitch. At this point, the whole thing was so absurd, I couldn’t make eye contact with J, lest we both burst out into unstoppable laughter. We felt like dicks, sitting in a fast-food restaurant, while a librarian-looking middle-aged man went into his expansive “let’s get rich quick together by selling worthless shit” scheme, the first step of which was buying his start-up kit of “how to sell effectively” tapes and various PowerPoint documents illustrating the path to success.

Fred was sitting awkwardly in one of those McDonalds swivel chairs, lecturing the three of us in a window booth. It just looked weird, especially on a weekend night. Kids were pointing at us and laughing. Of course kids were hanging out there – this is what kids do in small towns, hang out at fast-food places. J and I were dressed in t-shirts and shorts – T had anticipated the mild formality of the even and had on a short-sleeve knit shirt. I guess when you sell Amway, you adapt to any situation. This guy had probably sold Amway in topless bars and church basements. A McDonalds made as much sense to him as any place else.

Fred’s whole spiel, and he talked nonstop, was the usual horseshit – drop a few hundred bucks on his training materials (obviously how he made most of his money) and then start attending seminars where you, too, could unlock the secrets of success. The whole idea was to rope all your friends into buying and selling cheap Amway products. That’s all it was. Avon calling. Only Avon had a niche – cosmetics – while Amway was all over the place. Think Tupperware parties. I could understand the logic of grouping people together to buy one type of product. But Amway just seemed like the worst sort of horseshit sell, the concept that we were all going to be millionaires by exploiting our friends into buying and selling this utter garbage.

Fred got done his spiel, and immediately blurts out, well, where should I send the learning materials. Like any good salesman – closing the sale metaphorically when he senses the people he’s talking to think he’s an asshole. J got into it a bit with Fred, picking over his logic and points. Man, I just sat there stewing. T was already into the program, had put money down on the learning materials and such, already signed up for a seminar. J made the mistake of trying to engage this con artist in a real conversation, and all he got were circular replies to his real questions. No one asked me what I thought – I gather Fred picked up on the negative vibes I was emanating and figured just let that one go.

The kicker came when we finished up our Big Macs and headed back to the hotel parking lot. Fred made a big show out of his car – I can’t recall what it was, surely some type of luxury vehicle. He beeped open the trunk, an in it was a fishing rod that cost him a few hundred dollars. I guess he figured that since we were in a rural area, we were rednecks and into fishing. T was, but not J or I. He took out the rod and mimicked fly casting over the parking lot, inviting us on a fishing trip he had planned next day in the Susquehanna.

He already had T – hook, line and sinker – but he sensed J and I were lost causes. I later told J I had pondered the possibility of kicking Fred’s ass and stuffing him in the trunk of his car. We weren’t going to do anything, much less go fly-fishing, with this guy. From the second we met him until we bid adieu with his fishing rod in hand, J and I had felt nothing but radical discomfort. You have to understand, this guy’s whole spiel was based solely on the concept of making truckloads of money. It was a pure, unabashed advertisement for greed – every sentence finished with a reminder over how much money we would make (and we surely wouldn’t … he might if he hustled enough mooks in this fashion).

Having lived in New York a few years at that time, I found myself unimpressed by greed – still do, even more so now. I wasn’t impressed by garish displays of financial power – wasn’t repulsed either. It just never mattered to me. The rich people I sometimes worked for didn’t seem overly happy – many of them seemed much worse off than the middle/working-class people I’d always known. Less happy. Less sane. Less healthy. If there were a few things I was certain of, it was that their lives were no better than mine, and that I didn’t envy them. It seemed like a lot of work to keep up appearances, and very few opportunities to genuinely relax.


Most working-class people I’d known sat around fantasizing what it would be like “to be rich” … never quite realizing they’d go on being the same people, only with more problems generated by their increased income. We have this illusion that financial security exists in our lives – it just doesn’t for most people. And for the ones it does, as noted, their lives are not fantasy worlds of happiness and pure delight. People who live in mansions are always “on” in some sense – how you relax in a house filled with assistants and servants, I have no idea. Your whole life is geared towards maintaining that fa├žade. Not kicking back after work in a tank top and shorts, with a beer, listening to the Dead, or what have you. You do that in a mansion, people think you've turned into Howard Hughes and start looking at the length of your fingernails.

How do you explain this to an Amway salesman in a McDonald’s parking lot, who reeks of “dick” but has himself convinced he’s got the world by the tail because of the things he owns? In short, you don’t. You just recognize that this is the guy’s thing in life, more power to him, and let him go off spinning in that wondrous constellation of seminars filled with easy marks who will end up unhappy, but only after he’s fleeced them for a few hundred bucks a piece. The difference between Fred and me was I knew I didn’t have the world by the tail – that it had me by the tail and the best I could do was try to make sense of the insanity around me. You don’t sell people when you see the world that way – you just live in it.

We said good night, T chatting a little longer with Fred to make sure all was cool with the next week’s seminar, and J and I finally got off on our own and started howling with laughter. Fred probably heard us … again, there was nothing new under the sun for the guy with his sales pitch, hell, he’d probably been physically attacked after giving his pitch, so a few 24-year-old guys laughing at him in a parking lot was no big deal.

When T got us back in his rabbit, he was a little angry with us, but he just wasted two hours of our lives on this horse’s ass salesman, and if anyone should be angry here, it should be us. But we weren’t really angry, probably because we sensed the insanity of the situation and rode with it. Actually, we started mercilessly haranguing T with the little self-help aphorisms and sayings Fred had sprinkled through his pitch, laughing uproariously after each bon mot. T wasn’t taking it well, and I knew not to ride him too hard. There was an instance in high school where he got the world’s worst haircut, literally a bowl cut, that left him looking like Moe from The Three Stooges. That day, I harassed him endlessly with Stooges riffs, making Curly “nook-nook-nook” sounds, doing that finger-popping/hand waving routine they would do before slapping each other upside the head. The kicker came when I started singing “The Alphabet Song” from one of their episodes (“Bah-aye-bay, Bay-ee-bee/ Bay-eye-bippie-bye-bye-boh-boo.”) T eventually flipped out and started punching me in the arm, which was excruciating.

I knew not to get the guy stewing, and he was stewing that J and I thought Fred was a complete asshole … which implied even worse for him if he was following Fred. As it turned out, we were right. T took the seminars, dropped another few hundred bucks into Fred’s pocket, started trying to sell Amway to his friends, immediately realized they resented being sold to, as any friend would, probably made a little money, but far less than he had invested in Fred, and gave the whole thing up a few weeks later. I don’t know how he didn’t grasp what J and I did immediately – that you would have to see your friends as potential customers – and this was not kosher. You don’t exploit your friends. You don’t see them as avenues for you to make money. I take that back – there are plenty of people in New York who do nothing but network, and everyone in their lives falls in that category of “how can this person help me.” But they have no real friends, which will become painfully obvious when the chips are down in some sense. I use the word “mercenary” a lot in New York because it applies.

We didn’t hold it against T because we knew he’d meant no harm. We had to play it cool that night, but we would later laugh about how he was led astray by the Amway salesman and his pyramid scheme. I’m not sure what people think when they have these schemes laid on them by enterprising salesman. Either you have a strong set of values in life before that, which may very well include pursuing monetary wealth, or you seem to expect this person to grant you a new set of values that allows you to make truckloads of money, like they’re introducing you to a new, better belief system than the one you had. They’re not. They’re hustling you. But I guess capitalism is built on that sort of “pie in the sky” hustle, and always will be.