It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m panicking.

I woke up with the worst pain in my abdomen.

To be more specific, it feels as though someone has reached inside me and is squeezing my innards as they attempt to rip them from my body.

I’ve already woken Tony up twice.

The first time was to ask him where it would hurt if I were about to die from appendicitis. He assured me it would be in my side.

He has a scar where I would approximate the appendix to be, so I’m pretty sure he knows about these things.

OK then, it’s not appendicitis.

The second time was to tell him I think I need to go to the hospital because I think I’m about to die of Toxic Shock Syndrome. And to apologize for being such a bitch last night.

If you’re about to die, it’s always best to apologize for things like that. Especially if you’re me because I’ve always wronged somebody in some way.

Tony assured me that I’m not going to die and I don’t need to go to the hospital.

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And so I took some Advil and continued to lie in bed awaiting my imminent death.

“It’s probably just indigestion. Maybe you ate something bad,” he said.

Yeah, maybe he’s right.

But, oh God this hurts!

No, no, why isn’t the Advil working? Advil always works when I have cramps.

No, surely this is Toxic Shock Syndrome. Or something much worse.

Should I get out of bed and look for the information pamphlet? I’ve read that information pamphlet 600 times. How do I not remember the symptoms of Toxic Shock?

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I try to stay calm.

I try yoga positions.

I try lying on my stomach and massaging my ab muscles.

I try lying on my back.

I lie in the fetal position.

Nothing is making this go away.

And all I can think about is the plight of 20-somethings and middle-income workers in today’s world. There are hospitals all over the city. There are firefighters, doctors, policemen, paramedics, all waiting for a call for help.

And yet. And yet, we can’t call. We can’t call because all we can think about is: What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not dying of TSS? I’ll have wasted all that money. I’ll never be able to pay the bills. I’ll be in financial ruin, especially here in France where I have no Social Security to reimburse me.

No, it’s better to risk death.

If there’s no fire, no blood, no mangled limbs, then there’s no reason to call 911.

Oh God, I don’t even know the number for 911 in France! Jesus, how do I not know this? What if this is serious?

OK. OK. Calm down.

Let’s go get that pamphlet on Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Here it is.

I look at the pamphlet. It’s in at least 10 different languages, none of them English.

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Wait. What?! This is an American brand!* I’ve been using this since I was 16!** They have to have this information in English somewhere.

Surely this can’t be right. Calm down and check the languages again.

See there, there’s an “E” over that one.

Phew! OK.

Shit. No, I was wrong. “E” is for “Espagne.” What you need is “GB” for “Great Britain.”

Yep, that’s not here.

OK. OK. All is not lost. You speak French. Do you remember you speak French? You’ve been speaking French for 10 years! You can figure this out. And even if you can’t, remember that you have that giant English/French dictionary next to the bed.

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Whoever thought of using a universal language for scientific words is a genius! Hm. I never knew Toxic Shock Syndrome was caused by Staphylococcus. No wonder it’s fatal.

Rebecca? Rebecca! Did you forget what you were looking for?

Oh yes. OK, here we are: symptoms.

I don’t have any of the symptoms, although I’m pretty sure I am blanched, but maybe that’s because it’s 3 a.m. But no vomiting so far, although I’m suddenly feeling nauseous. Um, nope, no diarrhea, no sore muscles, no feeling like I’ve been sunburned, no dizzy spells when I stand up.

So I take some Midol. I hate Midol because it has caffeine in it and it gives me the jitters.

I lie back in bed and try to concentrate on anything but the pain.

As I’m lying there I begin to be more logical. I rethink my original self-diagnosis, and I’m pretty sure this is actually just a really bad case of menstrual cramps brought on by having started taking the pill again this month. They say that can be a side effect, even though the commercials always promise less cramping and lighter periods.

Ah yes, the Midol is taking effect. Thank goodness Tony wasn’t easily talked into going to the hospital this morning. I’d hate to be in financial ruin for nothing but paranoia.

*Side note for you doubters: Tampax is indeed an American brand. It was started in Denver, CO, according to their Web site.

**Since the age of 16, I have been freaking out at least two or three times a year about Toxic Shock Syndrome. In fact, TSS is the reason it took me five years to start using tampons in the first place. I would have never changed over if it hadn’t been for joining the water polo team in high school.

I was a late bloomer.  Drinking never appealed to me in high school.  Maybe it was because I was shyand/or depressed.  I was always filled with contempt for people around me who were loud, horsing around, unaware of the circumference of their waving limbs, bumping into me, stepping on my toes, totally unapologetic about having more fun than I was having- right in front of me.

However, after a long, calculated process of overcoming my shyness through various personal tests that I created for myself (I’ll go into these shortly), having settled upon and embraced Welbutrin as the cure for my depression, and having discovered that I love the sweet taste of Bourbon – my life is a lot different.  Better, I’d say.

Having become a happy person, everyone around me endeared themselves to me by their mere existence.  I remember sitting on a bench at a bar watching a jock-ish, bridge-and-tunnel guy attempting to flirt with a slutty bridge-and-tunnel girl.  I thought about how each of them had probably taken some care earlier that day in picking out their outfits.  If I were asked to fill out a survey I would have had to admit that I found their ensembles rather “tacky”, but no- because right then I imagined them looking in the mirror, measuring their insecurities and pride, feeling hopeful about the night’s opportunities, just as I had, and I loved them.



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In high school and college I had always prided myself on not relying upon alcohol as a crutch, as I imagined others did in order to talk to people and have a good time.  I practiced one of my personal exercises at a club, Don Hill’s, where I would stand somewhere near the middle of the mostly-empty dance floor, legs together and straight, hands dangling at my sides, no cigarette or drink to play with, staring straight ahead, and see how long I could hold that position before the awkwardness and embarrassment overcame me.  Other more practical goals I set for myself involved approaching and talking to strangers whom I wanted to know.  That was rewarding in both increasing my confidence and making new friends.

So, starting around two years ago, I would let someone order me a Makers and Ginger.  That’s my drink.  Unlike past occasions when people thought they could turn me onto alcohol through a vodka cranberry which I found bitter and would nurse throughout the entire evening, barely making a dent, I actually enjoyed the taste of the Makers and Ginger and eventually would finish it.

One of the biggest changes that came with drinking was my new-found ability to dance.  My whole life I had sat on the sidelines and physically resisted both friends and strangers who tried to pull me up from my seat by my arms onto the dance floor.  Dancing is now one of the elements I most look forward to in a prospective night out.

I have to interrupt my apparent direction and reveal my true train of thought, that even now as I type, I still feel I have a toe stuck in the Alpha Zone.  I’ve only heard about the Alpha Zone once, secondhand.  My friend Ben told me about a scene in a documentary he had just watched on Jimi Hendrix.  One of Hendrix’s buddies describes him as being in the Alpha Zone before he died.  He says it’s when you know you’re going to die.  I don’t remember any further details but I immediately recognized that I already had my own interpretation, my own sense of this, and now I could give it a name.

So from here forward, whatever you know about Jimi Hendrix’s Alpha zone, or if it is a well known phenomenon in general, keep in mind that I am referring to my own variation.

The Alpha Zone is when you are moving just slightly faster than your thoughts – your inhibitions surface just as you’re already performing the questionable task.  You watch almost in slow motion and disbelief when it’s already too late, it’s just up to chance whether or not you’ll land unscathed.  Then again, sometimes in the Alpha Zone, you’re not doing anything, you’re just sitting there, but you know that you have no control and therefore anticipate your time coming sooner than later, maybe so it doesn’t catch you by surprise.

Returning to the first story, throughout the last two years, every few weeks I would have a night where I would say “Now this is the drunkest I’ve ever been!” or a morning where I would feel a little crappy and think “Is this my first hangover?”  But after a night of drinking and dancing I would often wake up after only a few hours of sleep, more invigorated than usual.

When I conquered my sober shyness, I made the final push with such momentum by way of rationalization and reward that I think I may have shot passed the norm for which I was originally aiming, and crossed into that region inhabited by weirdos.  I no longer have any perception of where the line is.

Using this new found, but what I think must be innate ability to bluntly yet charmingly command a situation, and with a little extra spirit from some alcohol, I’ve had some fun or at least interesting nights where I went home with near-strange men (i.e. they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who I knew) simply to see where they lived. I would let them kiss around my face while I looked at their iPhoto libraries and tried to extract conversation.  I’d let them pass out, sleep next to them, wake up early, maybe watch TV and leave, sometimes having made a new friend.  That really only describes one situation in particular but there are a few others with just slight variations.  Just to ease your worries, friends, I always text a certain pal the name and address of any stranger with whom I leave.

Other times I think I’m commanding a situation but it turns out not to be true at all.  Like the recent occasion when I was very excited to meet a stocky Jewish guy and asked just for his e-mail address to continue our discussion about comedy, only to discover he had given me a fake address AND fake unsolicited number.  That’s another story that I plan on delivering soon.

Then, about two weeks ago (11/17/07)…
The day after a typical night of drinking and dancing, I began my morning with the assumption that I had left my new digital camera at my studio, since it was not in my bag.  I checked my e-mail as usual and at first was pleasantly surprised to see a letter in my inbox from F, a recent friend who I don’t hear from often.  But the subject was cryptic: “Don’t freak out!”  I thought it must be a mass e-mail, but the letter read “I found your camera on the floor [last night]…”

I was very embarrassed but when I talked to him he assured me that I had not seemed that intoxicated and said there had been a drunk woman searching for her missing bag, rooting around through everyone’s stuff, recklessly pulling up different items from a pile and my camera must have fallen out then.  Still, I was disappointed in myself because I usually never leave a place without checking for four things: Camera, Wallet, Phone, and Keys.

A week goes by, I don’t remember anything standing out.  Then two nights of going out and having to wake up early the next day.  The third night is Thanksgiving and I’m determined to go to sleep immediately after dinner.  Maybe it would have been easier if I hadn’t convinced my parents to get a chicken instead of a turkey this year.

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I was lying in bed too tired to fall asleep without the aid of Tryptophan when a friend called to invite me to another Thanksgiving dinner nearby.  Hosted by a Russian family, I drank vodka and ate a steady, delicious stream of potatoes, Russian style coleslaw, and cornichons until 1:30am when they brought out the desserts.  It was a rowdy evening, but wholesome.


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The next morning (11/24/2007), I had to be at work at 11am, was the usual 15 minutes late, blah blah blah blah and somehow ended up out at night again, at one of my bar-with-dance-floor haunts.  Totally exhausted, but carefree and full of wired energy, I stashed my stuff somewhere, including my cash, so I could then search for someone to buy me a drink and not be tempted to buy my own if I didn’t succeed.

But I kept running into people I had grown up with and I didn’t want to seem like a mooch.  I texted a friend M, who is always willing to treat.  I wrote him to get here soon because I was thirsty but he kept responding that he was “ambivalent” about coming.  Maybe this was the first cave-in of the evening: Frustrated and losing nerve, I asked my best friend K with whom I had arrived to lend me money for a drink.  I borrowed $10, got my whiskey-ginger and started to make the rounds.

Of course right then, my drinking patron (M) arrived and not to pass up a freebie I soon accepted another drink from him as well.  So now I’ve got a drink in each hand which makes it difficult to maneuver in a crowd, so I worked at finishing one as fast as possible just to have a free hand.

In my circle I’m known for wearing a fanny-pack.  This is where I keep my Camera, Wallet, Phone, and Keys.  It’s especially handy for dancing.  A fanny-pack gives you the security of having your valuables on you without the awkward lopsidedness of a shoulder bag or purse.  It can even act as a buffer if someone tries to grind you.

But vanity…  For some reason that night, apart from my large tote which I don’t mind leaving on a chair because it only has things like an umbrella, magazine, book, bottle of water, etc., I had brought a small fancy purse just for walking around the club.  Within the purse was a fanny-pack holding my camera and wallet.  Earlier that evening I had misplaced my phone at K’s house and for some reason I had left my keys in my coat pocket, the coat being stuffed into the tote.

However many drinks later from my patron and other benefactors, I found myself talking to a guy to whom a friendly acquaintance had just introduced me, and who was waiting in line for the bathroom.  When it was his turn I said “It’s your turn!”  He said he was enjoying talking to me and to just come in while he peed.  No big deal, so I did, and mostly looked away while he peed and continued our conversation.  I have no memory of what we were talking about, just that we were the same amount of silly-drunk and seemed to share a similar sense of openness.

Then we made our way to the dance floor where he said, “Wanna make out?”

“Sure” I said.  So we kissed a little while dancing.  Then he said he had a girlfriend.

I don’t remember how I transitioned to the next scene, just that I was a little hungry, M wanted to eat, K wanted to stay, and I had no idea where my little purse containing my fanny-pack containing my camera and wallet was.  But M would take me to a very good restaurant and everything right there and then was so loud and full of motion and smoke that I just wanted to go eat.

I grabbed my coat and tote.  It’s not that I looked for my little purse and was surprised not to find it.  I had no recollection at all of where or when I had put it down.  So, I left my wallet containing my credit card, two ATM cards, expired learner’s permit, 2 different health care cards, unlimited Metrocard, magnetic key card for my studio building for which I have no replacement, and my new digital camera (replacing one I had dropped and broken), which I MUST have on me at all times.

M and I took a cab to Blue Ribbon where he ordered me a matzah ball soup, a fried chicken with mashed potatoes and collard greens (I had ordered this combo a few nights earlier), and I chimed in a slice of chocolate cake.  I don’t even remember waiting for the food.

One thing I must make clear is that I do not and will not eat anything of the sea. I despise all seafood, ranging from the most obviously unappetizing crustaceans to seemingly innocent seaweed.  I cannot count the times I have been eating at a restaurant with someone who has said “You’ve just never had really good fish.  Try this.  It’s not fishy!”  And I would humor them with a small bite and a near-gag.  But what I’ve come to realize is this: Fish is inherently fishy. It’s fish!

I was a very picky eater growing up and the matzah ball soup, fried chicken, and chocolate cake is a good survey of the kind of foods with which I’ve always felt comfortable.  It does not reflect all the non-sea related food hurdles I’ve overcome and come to love such as eggs, cheese, steak, spinach, avocado, just to name a few.  But overcoming my distaste for seafood is not even on my horizon.

And in the entire kingdom of the sea, there is one subject I’ve always felt, and always said I’ve felt was the grossest possible thing a human being could put in their mouth.  That is shrimp.  It’s see-through and it looks like a giant bug.

I think a past boyfriend once persuaded me to try a nibble of a piece of shrimp and I think I spit it out or winced as I swallowed it mixed in with some other flavors.

At Blue Ribbon our food had arrived.  I was excitedly looking over my crispy fried chicken which as I had learned a few days earlier came with honey instead of honey mustard without my even asking!  I had probably drank some water by now and taken a few bites of my food.  All of a sudden M is talking about how this is his favorite dish and lifts a giant comma of a shrimp off the edge of a martini glass, dips it in a dark sauce and holds it out toward my face asking me to take a big bite.

I leaned in an inch, met the shrimp, took a big bite out of the top fat part of the comma, grimaced and chewed and chewed.  It just tasted like a fried tastiness in a sweet and salty sauce.  I couldn’t taste the shrimp, but I had to chew and chew and break apart these unfamiliar bendable structures.  Still holding the remainder of the comma, M brought it closer and said to just take one more bite.  I chomped a much smaller piece into my mouth, joining it with the previous acquisition and I chewed and chewed.  Eventually I swallowed part of it and kept thinking about getting the rest of this alien being out of my mouth by way of my throat.  After my mouth was clear I drank water and ate mashed potatoes to get a new taste in it.  I tried to convey to M how crazy it was, what just happened.  And of course, here I would have a photo of the historic shrimp if I hadn’t lost my camera.

The cake arrived.  I was pretty full but managed to eat most of it.  M put me in a cab with money and I made it all the way uptown, home, probably around 5am.  My phone still missing but at least definitely at K’s house, I didn’t have an alarm to set.  I fumbled my way up to bed anyway.

I sat up at 10am, just the right time to get ready for work and sent an e-mail to friends who were out the night before asking if they’d seen my stuff.  I didn’t include F, who had found my camera the first time.  I was too embarrassed.  I made it to the office 15 minutes late and got down to business.  I didn’t necessarily feel hung over, but when I remembered the shrimp, and that it was still in me, I almost threw up.  I had to take measured steps to ease my nausea, sipping water, taking deep breaths, looking away from the computer, standing up.  I told my boss I’d barely slept in days and she said I didn’t look tired at all.

Soon A replied to my e-mail that my stuff was found and safe.  Feeling partially redeemed by chance, I e-mailed F to tell him the story and that I’d been too embarrassed to include him in my group e-mail that morning since he was the only one who knew that I had already lost my camera that month.  To my dismay he replied that once again he had been the one to find my belongings and had actually handed them over to A.

The more I thought about things, the more uncomfortable I began to feel with how much undeserved luck (Can luck be deserved?) had been bestowed upon me.  First of all, there was no reason why I should still be in possession of my cool purse, my wallet and its contents, my camera, and my fanny-pack which had even gone to Nepal and back with me.

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Furthermore, I had barely even been coerced into not only trying, but trying twice and swallowing the cocktail shrimp.  While sober, I might have done a thousand more questionable things before eating shrimp.  Now I realized that I might have ended up doing anything that night had I not been in the safe company of M and Blue Ribbon.

I don’t think I had been living in the Alpha Zone during the preceding weeks.  I was enjoying a robust love of life and had only been approaching the speed of Alpha at what might have seemed a safe distance if it was something someone could comprehend.  I guess you aren’t always aware of the exact moment of the crossover.  And this was not just an Alpha Zone of chance- it was my own doing.  My own lack of resolve, my carelessness, gluttony and vanity.  Now I’ve gotten myself stuck here like a spaceship crashed on an unknown and mostly unfriendly planet in a sci-fi series.

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There is a particular Alpha-related sensation I want to describe: The feeling of the sudden awareness of Alpha.  It’s that feeling when you’re falling and it’s too late to regain your footing or any control; you’ve given up everything to chance.  It’s part “Oh shit!” and part “Let’s see what happens.”  The “Oh shit!” part is fast and instantaneous, it flies right by you in time.  The “Let’s see what happens.” part moves in slow motion with you- until you land and sit there dazed and aware of the fact that you might as well have been a tree falling with no one to hear, or you clutch your bruised knee and breathe in or, well, luckily I’ve never had the other outcome – nothingness.

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After work on Saturday I came home to my messy death-trap of a room where on many drunk nights I might stand on an unstable stool and attempt a daring reach for a cup on a ledge or miss a step on my loft bed ladder and just be watching from my mind’s eye as I tumble onto various levels of mess, just waiting, curious to see if I’ll land in one piece.

Even after my drinking-based recklessness began I’ve still only managed to have these Alpha-conscious moments in my bedroom.  It’s the least safe place of all.  There’s no doting suitor, no annoyed but might-be-concerned suitee, and no M to watch out for me and it’s a ridiculous physically rigorous obstacle course.
That’s my bathroom door.

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I fear death a lot and I taunt myself by imagining my death written up in the New York Post.  I can just imagine a trying-to-be-sensitive-even-though-and-because-it’s-inherently-funny piece about a young New York artist and musician falling to her death from her rickety IKEA twin loft bed.  And if such a piece were written I would hope it would note, although I know it would not, that with this particular model of loft bed comes a warning label advising that only one person may be on the bed at a time, thus consigning the sleeper solely to nights of solitude.

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It’s Thursday, November 29, 2007, 2am as I write from my loft bed, and I haven’t gone out in the evening since that Friday, November 24.  That shrimp really made me think.

I should have known this might happen.

I should have known those blissful days might end and nameless evenings of camp fires and star gazing would give way to a time with harsher edges.

I should have known that a love like this changes, and at some point, you’re forced to ask yourself what it is you love and why you stay.

He climbs my stairs like Tigger, full of bounce and light.

I’m waiting in the kitchen drinking wine, the ceramic tile smooth and cool under my bare feet, the anticipation of him hot and prickly.

He grabs me roughly and we kiss until our lips throb. He gets a hard on, steps back for assessment purposes.

Nice, I say sincerely.

Like that? he asks.

Of course, I reply. It’s so difficult to find a guy with a big cock and a big vocabulary.

He spits out a laugh. Is that right?

One or the other is easy, I explain, pulling him by the belt buckle toward me, but not both.

Not both? he echoes, suddenly kissing me too hard and pinning my spine too tightly against the kitchen counter. I push him off to breathe.

Don’t, I protest. We have reservations.

He sighs, retreats and cracks his knuckles. Where are we going by the way?

Aldo’s. Does it matter?

Absolutely not. You look incredible.

So do you.

I can’t wait to fuck you.

Can you not say that? It makes me feel pukey.

Who says pukey?

Plenty of people, I play along, stuffing an ID, debit card and lip gloss into a clutch.

Preteen people?

We jostle each other down the stairs.

At the end of creme brulée he confesses, I’m having feelings I’m uncomfortable with.

Everything you feel I feel, I breeze, pouring a last glass of wine.

I don’t know if you do, he says doubtfully, throwing his napkin on the table and settling back into the shellacked rattan chair.

I swirl cabernet and sigh. Yes you do know, because I’m telling you. And isn’t that the best part? How mutual this is?

Satisfied with this, he smiles at me. For me.

It is.

He beckons for the bill and pays. He always pays.

I’m having a traffic jam in my mouth, he says hoarsely. I have so many things to say and they’re all piling up in there.

I gnaw the insides of my cheeks.

You’ve taken over every inch of my heart. And you keep spreading.

Genuine or not, original or not, this kind of talk has a narcotic effect. I reply by ardently initiating the baptism of my new sofa.

When the tempo becomes unmanageable he rises from the sofa, stands in front of me and holds eye contact as he finishes himself off, cups it.

Through the sliding glass door comes the cheap tinkle of my next door neighbor’s windchimes, melodic for the first time.

I detangle knots from the shower while admiring the juxtaposition of his summer tan, his freeweight hardened body, against my multicolored butterfly sheets.

A dirty sort of pride fills my little black heart.

I turn back into the bathroom, catch myself smirking in the mirror.

Every day at least twice and usually more people ask about the scar.

His flat, white, ear to ear, not aesthetically displeasing scar –

The sandwich artist, the valet parking attendant, the bartender, they all want to know what happened, how you can be walking around with a scar that says you really shouldn’t even be walking around.

It’s rowdy, that scar, impossible to disguise with a hat or bandana. It invites inquiry, almost begs for it.

Not my scar and not my story, yet one side effect of being his sometimes companion is that I am constantly irritated at humanity.

How casually we risk hurting others with our reflexive curiosity.

We are not boyfriend and girlfriend.

So kissing him goodbye or not is a constant dilemma. One generous morning I am leaning down and he stirs, pulls me back into bed.

Call in sick, he pleads, yanking the covers over us despite my work clothes.

I never call in sick.

Exactly! All the more reason.

I can’t.

Why not? We can stay in bed all day and I’ll make you scream like you were screaming last night.

That’s not going to happen. I can’t drink this early in the morning.

He smiles, half-annoyed and half-amused, and yawns. Oh, so it was the booze?

Pretty much. I’m going now.

Sucks to be you.

Thanks. Have a great day too.

At first I am impressed: he never deflects, never shrinks from the curiosity. He tells the scar story with verve, with flair, with all the hideous details. He never gets tired of the territory, never grows bored of the repetition.

But I do.

I think you actually like the attention.

Like the attention? I went through five fucking years of surgeries. I’ve earned the right to talk about it. I’m not embarrassed.

I’m not saying you should be embarrassed. I just would not enjoy telling the story twenty fucking times a day.

You know, I’ve met some amazing people because of my scar. It’s the best conversation starter ever.

I see that. But how about, just once, saying ‘I’d rather not talk about it’?

Because I do want to talk about it. It’s part of who I am.

I would just get tired of the story.

Well. That’s you then.

Yeah. That’s me.

Like most informal relationships, our affair ended quickly, irrationally and with bad feelings on either side.

And so it goes.

The scar from our parting is much smaller than the one he has to wear forever, and in all likelihood it will fade until neither one of us remembers ever having it.

An open letter to Julie, the girl who dumped me right after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded:


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Dear Julie,

We dated briefly in the fifth grade, and on January 28, 1986, you broke up with me. We were sitting in the Presentation Area, adjacent the library, and we had just finished watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. It ascended from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and seventy-three seconds later, the whole thing went up in a massive fireball, killing everyone aboard. The room was silent, and our teachers started crying. And then your friend Marianne walked over to me and handed me a note that said, “Hey … You’re dumped.”

I’m not the type to hold a grudge or anything, but I always felt like that was really insensitive timing.

Cordially,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to Jeffrey Dahmer:


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Dear Jeffrey,

You worked at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the early 1980s. I read about it somewhere not too long after you were bludgeoned to death in prison. My second-grade class went on a field trip to the Ambrosia factory in 1982. I often wonder if you were there at the time of my visit. I wonder if we saw each other in the hallway or something. And naturally, I wonder if you looked at me and decided that you wanted to eat me and keep my skull as a souvenir.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to John Walker Lindh:


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Dear John,

You were born in 1981. Whenever I hear of adults who were born in the 1980s, it makes me feel old. You’re twenty-six now. And you’re in prison. I can’t think of anything worse than being twenty-six and in prison. I hope you’re not going insane.

I just reread your personal history online, and I have to admit, I find it pretty stunning. It’s hard to believe you started off in Marin County and wound up fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a massive statistical unlikelihood—which I suppose is part of the reason why you did it. For a teenager raised in Mill Valley, moving to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban has got to be the ultimate in youthful rebellion.

You must have been really pissed off at your parents.

At the time of your arrest, you were twenty years old.

When I was twenty, I was taking bong hits in a Boulder basement, listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz.

People, generally speaking, are pretty stupid at the age of twenty. I know I certainly was. And I imagine that you were, too.

To be honest, I think you might have set some kind of record for misguided youthful indiscretion. If there were some sort of measuring device that could calculate this kind of thing, I’m almost certain that you’d rank right up near the top.

A lot of my friends lost their shit in college, but nobody grew a beard and moved to Afghanistan.

Kindest regards,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA

P.S. Forty is the new twenty.



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Picture the scene.

It was the early 90’s.

REM was singing about losing their religion.

President Bill Clinton had appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show, playing sax with the band.

The “Rachel” Friends-style haircut was on the way in.

The mullet haircut was on the way out.

I was on the way out, too.

At that point in my life my San Francisco band and love relationship had crash-and-burned simultaneously.

In response my personal Magnetic North had spun completely out of whack.

My up was down. My down was sideways and backwards.

I was feeling just like the title of that REM album: Out of Time.

I hastily devised escape routes: I’d move to Boston. No. Austin. No. Seattle. No. Athens, Georgia. No.Norman, Oklahoma.

Prior to this time I’d made a few musical connections in LA.

One of those people suggested that before leaving the west coast I check out LA.

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I decided to give it a year. If it worked: great. If not: Anywhere USA here I come.

Very soon I realized the City of Angels was way too sprawling and disconnected for my liking.

I had a hard time making friends.
Had a hard time connecting with musicians.
My car eventually was rear-ended and totaled by a UPS truck on the freeway.

I’d only lasted seven-and-a-half months and already I was screwed. I wanted out. Way out.

The same friend who’d advised me to come to LA now told me she had a friend in London that might be willing to put me up if I wanted out. Way out.

I did.

A few phone calls were made and before I knew it I’d purchased a one-way ticket to London.

Screw America, I thought.

I’d been giving it my heart and soul for years.

Now was time to do the expat thing. Be just like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.

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Say goodbye to the states, get a band together in London. Then have Uncle Sam get down on his knees to beg me back.

Before I left my homeland for good I hopped a Greyhound back to the East Coast to visit family and friends.

The night before I left for London I visited an old college buddy in New York City.

We proceeded to get seriously wasted.

While stumbling through the East Village, we began spotting these business cards strewn about. They were in gutters, pinned under windshield wipers, pried into doorjambs.

The cards advertised a 1-900 sex phone line.

Each card had a different model on it.

One was African-American. Another Puerto Rican. Still another: Corn-fed White Girl.

They all had pillowy lips and come-hither looks.

Each card had a saying on it.

Something like:

“Sex without the hang-ups.” Or, “Cum closer to hear sex the way it should really be.”

My buddy and I thought the cards were hilarious. We began picking them up, stuffing them into our pockets.

By the end of the evening, I could barely find my money on account of all the sex cards I’d jammed into my jacket.

The next morning I got up early and grabbed my flight out of Newark.

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From there it was expat rock and roll stardom here I come.

On the flight I ended up sitting next to some guy. He was decked-out in a rumpled white button-up shirt with stains beneath the armpits. His glasses were taped across the bridge of his nose. He sported one of those pocket protectors jam-packed with pens and such. His forehead was sweat shiny. His hair was short, greasy and slightly unkempt.

About an hour into our flight he offered to buy me a drink.

I politely declined.

About a half hour later he asked again.

This time I figured what the hell. If I don’t say yes, he’ll just keep bugging me the whole trip. Besides, he seemed harmless enough—albeit a little weird in that Dungeons and Dragons, computer nerd, holed-up recluse kind of way.

The first J.D. and Coke went down nicely.

The second even better.

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That’s when my seatmate really began talking.

He leaned into me, whispered into my ear:

“Kill one person and you’re called a Murderer. Kill a million people and you’re called a King. Kill everyone on Earth and you’re called a God…”

That one had me practically spitting out my third drink.

“Excuse me?” I said.

His eyes grew wide with delight. “Ever heard of white magic?”

I gulped. “Is that anything like black magic?”

He began spouting out phrases like The Witchcraft Act in 1951; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; neo-paganism; Earth religions; magical religions, pentagrams and the like.

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My head was reeling. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the alcohol, or the fact that I’d been stuck on a Trans-Atlantic flight next to the bastard child of Aleister Crowley.

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“Here,” he said, “check this out.”

From his pocket protector he discretely slipped out a tiny stone dagger.

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“Pretty cool. Huh?”

I nodded. I wasn’t sure whether that nod was due to genuine curiosity or the fact that I didn’t want to upset a guy who had a knife pointed at me.

“How did you get it past security?” I asked.

He tapped it against my knee.

“It’s stone. Goes right through metal detectors.”

“What are you gonna do with it?” I said. “Use it in some kind of white magic ritual?”

He smiled a wicked smile.

Now things were getting kind of interesting.

“You ever sacrifice anyone?” I said.

He flashed another smile. “Want another drink?”

That was the last thing I needed at that point. If I had any more, I thought, I might risk passing out.

The next thing I knew I’d wake up dead from having my throat slit by a stone dagger.

“That’s cool,” I said. “I’m fine.”

We didn’t talk much after that.

It was only when we’d reached Heathrow that he said as we were deplaning:

“You know, the funny thing is, the way you’re looking like some kind of hippy, and with me looking like I am, I’ll sail right through security, but you won’t.”

At first I thought, Screw You. You’re Full of Shit.

But soon I realized he was right.

Just as we’d reached Heathrow security he was allowed to pass. But I was stopped for interrogation and inspection.

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Up ahead, I noticed him glance back over his shoulder, and flash one of those I Told You So looks.

Part of me wanted to rat him out.

But another part of me thought fine. This already messed-up world won’t be much different with another white magic nerd lurking about.

The security guards gave me the once over.

They scrutinized my long hair, my straw hat, sleepy eyes, rumpled clothes, and guitar slung over my shoulder.

“Empty your pockets,” one of them said.

Without thinking, I dug down deep, pulled out a wad of something and threw it across the counter.

Tons of those sex cards spilled out.

Puerto Rican girls. Corn-fed White girls. African American girls.

They were everywhere.

Their pillowly lips and come-hither looks were telling one and all to call that 1-900 number for a good time.

The guards scoped out the cards then checked out each other.

“Empty your other pockets,” the same guard said.

More sex cards spilled out.

Asian girls. Hispanic girls. Russian girls.

Now I was really screwed. I’d never make it into London.

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Thinking fast, I said:

“Oh those cards. Pretty crazy, huh? We Americans are pretty silly.”

I went on to explain how I was a student writing a paper on the commercialization of sex in the U.S.

I’m not sure whether they bought it, or if they just felt sorry for me, or if they just wanted to get rid of me so they could gather up those cards and start making some long distance booty calls.

Either way, they let me go.

I was officially off American soil and had my whole expat rock-and-roll fantasy waiting for me just beyond those airport doors.

But I was minus about sixty sexy girls in tow.


Authors Note: I’d like thank fellow TNB writer Jen Burke for her keen observations and editorial assistance while creating this post.


1. This American Life broadcast #339 “Breakup” released 08/24/2007. Available for $0.95 on iTunes or I can email the MP3 to you.

2. Sweat. The gym kind.

3. Cary Tenis’s advice in general and in particular this.

4. Moderate seclusion.

5. “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life” by Steven Hayes

6. The blog of NY Times hip hop critic Sasha Frere Jones

7. Mozella’s Light Years Away


One thing I’m not too fond of is blind adherence. I think it’s a good idea to occasionally take a step back from whatever you’re doing and ask “Does this make sense?”

Curiosity can’t be a bad thing, at least not in most cases.

This is why I detest politics. I often get the feeling that politically passionate people don’t think about their view points. Rather it seems like they take whatever ideology they identify with and blindly defend it.

Growing up in a middle-class Texas household, you can guess what my upbringing was like: somewhat socially conservative, very fiscally conservative. So that’s the kind of person I was until I became old enough to think critically, when I started noticing certain bits of hypocrisy in the social side.

So gradually I migrated away from social conservatism, but still held onto my fiscal conservatism.

In my first election I felt firmly Republican, but in subsequent years I didn’t identify with a party. If anything I seemed a bit like a Libertarian, but really I didn’t understand why I had to pick. Of course I realize there are practical benefits to the two-party system, but personally I hate it. The world does not fit into a system of black or white, so why should we shoehorn something as complex as politics into that model?

When I look around at the various issues we debate about, I wonder how it’s possible that they all seem to line up perfectly with political party platforms. Whether we’re talking about global warming or stem cell research or national health care or immigration or economics or whatever, I just don’t understand how it’s possible that all of these issues can somehow line up perfectly on the right and the left.

The answer is: They don’t. It’s us that forces them to, or rather pundits and activists who do it.

And when you begin asking questions about your long-held beliefs, you can easily become the political enemy of those who were previously your allies.

Fiscal conservatism stuck with me for many years because I felt like people ought to earn their own way in life, and if they happened to find success, they shouldn’t be unduly penalized for it. I didn’t really understand why I or anyone else should pay money to subsidize people who didn’t work as hard. I mean, no one gave me a free ride. I worked various jobs since I was 11 to help pay my university tuition, and worked full time in college as well.

Of course, my middle-class upbringing offered me opportunities that were harder to come by for someone who grew up in the projects. But I didn’t really see why that was my fault. But also…I didn’t really see why it was THEIR fault, either. If you’re BORN into poverty, how is that your fault?

I don’t know if there are easy answers for such problems.

On global warming, after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was sold on the idea of humans being the major cause behind rising temperatures. Then I spoke to a few people who disagreed (with reasonable proof to back up their claims), and my position softened. I read a little and I decided it was difficult to know just how much humans were causing global warming. But I also figured I should do things within my power to help, however small they might be, like recycling and using energy efficient appliances, lights, etc. Just because we humans might not be the main cause doesn’t mean we are obligated to be intentionally wasteful.

Recently I spent some time discussing economics with someone more knowledgeable about the subject than me. This person is of the opinion that the United States doesn’t collect enough tax revenue. Our infrastructure is crumbling and our social programs are abysmal because we have the lowest tax burden in the world among industrialized nations, he says.

This, of course, flies in the face of my economic conservatism. But instead of outright rejecting his ideas, I’m trying to understand them. He believes Democrats and Republicans are BOTH conservative and none will raise taxes to an appropriate level because we Americans won’t stand for it. When the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earn a postwar record 21 percent of all income in the U.S., he says, the only way to protect our country from eventual economic collapse is to make the rich pay more taxes…especially people who were born into wealth, who comprise the majority of the super-rich. The middle class cannot and should not be expected to give more. And he tells me how China and Japan and Europe are eventually going to want changes in government spending if they are going to continue to finance our massive national debt.

I don’t know if this guy is right, but his positions seem well-reasoned enough for me to consider them. The infrastructure here in Oklahoma is downright embarrassing, but in my home state of Texas it’s pretty good. What’s the difference? Also, I’ve never had much of an opinion about health insurance because I have an extremely good plan where I work. But a self-employed friend of mine recently started looking for health insurance, and she was quoted $1250 a month for a pretty basic plan. I mean, come on. That’s a mortgage payment. It’s absurd. But is government-sponsored health care the answer? Or is health care simply too expensive? Will effective health care eventually be feasible only for the rich?

What are the answers? I don’t know. But what I do know is they don’t lie on just one side of the political landscape. Republicans aren’t right about everything, and neither are Democrats. Anyone who believes differently should be given a set of Crayons and sent back to first grade.

Notice how there aren’t just two colors in the box?

I have ideas to relieve boredom. I want to make videos of me laying on my bed, like my head hanging off the bed, on my back, eating cornbread staring blankly at the ceiling and sometimes at the bread occassionally getting up without changing my facial expression to do push-ups or sit-ups. That’s what I do sometimes. The videos will show me picking up Good Morning, Midnight or Like Life and reading a few pages and setting them down. The videos will show me eating cashews. The videos will show me cleaning the floor or windowsill with toilet paper. I will put these videos on Youtube. I want to make a series of videos showing me eating food or listening to music.

I have other ideas to relieve boredom. I can’t think of any right now.

I created a website that has a lot of my art on it and that relieved boredom.


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I drank coconut water and that relieved boredom.


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I have mostly constant philosophies that dictate my actions in concrete reality most of time and that relieves boredom.

For example that I only want to be published by independent publishers. I want to see how many people I can get to buy my books without being published by a publicly-owned company. This isn’t self-righteous, or moral (it is also moral, but as a means for something else, from my current perspective), it is a personal thing, like a personal game I play in my head. It relieves boredom.

Yes, it makes sense to do this and I can defend it morally, if I also define a context and a goal and the word “morals,” but I cannot defend it comprehensively, or non-sarcastically, because the universe doesn’t tell us what to do, it doesn’t know what to do (except continue to perpetuate physical laws, like gravity; if that is what the universe is “telling” us to do then it would mean people “should” stop their consciousness so that they can become something that does things based only on the physical laws of the universe). People have their contexts and their goals and their perspectives which dictate their morals. They get those contexts from other people, from books, from TV, from Noam Chomsky, Moby, or George W. Bush, who get them in turn from other people, etc., going back to the first conscious thing who got them from something no one knows anything about which is how that is defined, “something no one knows anything about.” There is always the knowledge, to me, that one has “made-up” their context, and therefore their morals, from nothing, their rules from nothing, from nothingness.

Sometimes I’ll get frustrated or angry with someone for things like hypocrisy or if they are being self-righteous or something. Or if their actions do not actualize what they talk about. But then I try to think about all this, what I typed here, and I don’t remain angry or frustrated, I don’t want to (I still do though sometimes). It would be like playing monopoly and getting angry at someone who is playing chess for not participating in your game of monopoly, like me taking a monopoly board and going everywhere forcing everyone to play. They are just two different games, chess and monopoly, created not by the universe but by other humans. Each has its own rules; each is equally “true.” But outside of those games is nothing, there are no rules, and a person can switch games and that is normal, I would be less comprehensive in my view of things if I got angry or frustrated about that.

Sarcasm or irony are the only tones I can process something with, knowing all this, having taken this context of including more than one game, of trying to be outside of all games, or as many games as possible. Then entering each game with the knowledge that all are equally “valid” from “where I was” which was “outside of all games.”

This is not “nihilistic.” My actions are not based on nothing, they are not arbitrary. A game must be played at all times. Killing a homeless person to relieve boredom, that is a game, it is the game of the context of your own body, of your brain wanting to relieve boredom, which is a goal, which is not arbitrary, it is based on brain chemicals. (Eating a hot dog fulfills something, breathing fulfills something, I don’t think “nihilism” is a word that can be applied to a human, unless maybe if that human is insane and messed-up to the point of not having urges to satisfy even physical urges.)

I play the game of wanting to have a more comprehensive context than most people, one that includes animals, people I can’t see, and future people not yet born. So I eat organic, vegan food; try to give little money to corporations or else exploit them more than I give them money; and want to only be published by an independent publisher. But I know I am playing a game. I think I am playing this particular game because to me, knowing what I know, it relieves boredom more (because my brain needs to think more, which distracts me from boredom; and because it lets me be around people who aren’t as “boring” to me, which relieves boredom relatively), and because I think it will make me live longer and enjoy things more, than if my choices were based on a smaller context, like if I only took into account myself in a time-frame of “right now” which would mean I would satisfy all physical urges immediately. And because of other reasons also.


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One thing to complicate this is that if I want to play the game “even better” (to relieve boredom even more, and more effectively). If I want to have an even larger context, to include even more kinds of animals, and people even further in the future, I might need to disacknowledge all I’ve just typed, and try to forget all of it. Because maybe I will “try harder” (or else actualize my philosophy even more effectively in concrete reality) if I don’t feel sarcastic. For example more people might buy my books, and support independent publishing, if they don’t read that actually I’m just “playing a game” when I tell people to buy from Melville House and not Amazon. And in terms of boredom someone who does not feel sarcastic, for example an activist or senator or hardcore Christian, is even less bored. They are relieving boredom a lot, and probably almost never feel bored, because all their actions have non-sarcastic meaning. Based on this post maybe it is what I actually want, to not be sarcastic anymore but to be a hardcore Christian with no sarcasm. But I am not sure if it is possible for me to do that. But maybe it is possible. Sometimes I am doing something and I am very serious, I am not sarcastic. If I prolong those moments and focus on them more I can become a self-righteous politician probably. And I won’t be bored.

But for now it feels “bad” if I block out any knowledge I already know (does that mean my “ends” is not just “to relieve boredom?”). And I need to block out knowledge to become non-sarcastic, to do political things and think I am “right” and to call art “good” or “bad” without sarcasm and think I am “right.” That whatever work of art is actually “the best.” This is complicated. Have a nice day.

A few months ago I was walking down Park Avenue with Jay Israelson and he pointed out a very funny vanity plate.  It read “I Broker.”  We assumed it was referencing “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, but even if itwasn’t, it was still classic U.E.S. (Upper East Side).

Since then I’ve started a photo collection of vanity plates in the neighborhood.  My official parameters are 59th Street to 96th Street anywhere on the East Side of Central Park but by routine I generally keep to the 80’s and 90’s.  Other photo categories I continue to separately archive include neighborhood pigeons, cats, dogs, and awnings – I’m not exactly sure why I feel the need to do this, but it’s all very formally sorted out on my computer’s hard drive.

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Back to license plates.  I’ve never had a car, or a license for that matter, but I’ve learned a lot about license plates this past month from observing patterns.  I know that a regular New York State license plate consists of 3 letters, a space, and then 4 numbers.  Sometimes it can be deceiving when the first three letters happen to spell something and the 4 numbers look like a year.  There are also many exceptions to this format for New York plates, such as those on commercial vehicles, cars of doctors, as well as categories I had never thought of or even heard of which I have since looked up.  Here is the collection so far…

First, some exceptions.  These aren’t really “vanity” plates but they are noteworthy.

Civil Air Patrol – They’re actually called The New York Wing.

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State Magistrates Association

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Dentists and doctors seem to have an actual quantitative number, regardless of how many digits.  So it is exciting to see #755 considering how many dentists there are in New York.

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A sure sign that the art of chiropractry is gaining universal acceptance:

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You can’t leave out the diplomats.

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Here is a Volunteer Firefighter of Fire Island plate.  The father of an old friend of mine was a volunteer firefighter in Fire Island, the location of their country house.  I wonder if this is his car and he has since moved up to captain.

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Korean War Veteran:

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This plate below has got to be by far the most awe-inspiring, imagination-spurring, and intimidating of all license plates.  This was parked in the 80’s on York Avenue.

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Initials:

These kind of remind me of in middle school when everyone would get their initials monogrammed on to their L.L.Bean backpacks.  I, too, had RSS done on a large red one.  (My middle name is Suzanne for Suzanne Farrell, the ballet dancer, and I am also Becky-Sue.)

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Then there are some that are more like screen names or a user name you’d use to log into your bank account.  You can tell the person specifically requested this particular combination of letters and numbers but it’s meaning is cryptic.  Sometimes it seems like, why even bother?  But I guess that’s why they’re called “vanity” plates.

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A rare view inside:

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Funny spelling:

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It’s a little unclear to me whether the plate above is meant to read “Meg and Kate” or “Megan Kate”.  I would guess the latter.  But this next plate has been driving me nuts.  It looks like I’m supposed to get what it means, like when you text someone “see you tmrw” – it’s obvious.  Any suggestions?

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Cute ones:

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I’m not sure what “Nit Devil” means, but it’s still cute…

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People with vanity plates often express themselves further with bumper stickers, etc.  It’s too small to see, but between the “Fish Tremble…” and the American flag is a National Rifle Association sticker.

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(Well, Venustas, your bumper sticker had some impact.  It got me to look up Mitch Landrieu who is actually the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana and whose father Moon Landrieu was the mayor of New Orleans from 1970-1978.)

Sometimes the message is not in the plate number, but around it:

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Hey, it’s true!  Washington D.C. doesn’t get representation!

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At first I thought the plate below belonged to a special advocacy group but according to the Wikipedia entry for District of Columbia Voting Rights,

While the District’s official motto is Justitia omnibus (”Justice to All”), the words “Taxation Without Representation”, echoing the Revolutionary
slogan, “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny!”, were added to
D.C. license plates in 2000 (although alternative plates featuring the
D.C. website URL are available on request), and there was briefly a movement to add the words “No Taxation Without Representation” to the D.C. flag.

Moving on, apparently you really only need a rear license plate.  I wonder if it is the case that the cameras for catching traffic violations always shoot from behind the car…

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And some more:

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It’s gotten to the point where I can’t walk down the street without
having to read each license plate I pass for fear that I’ll miss a
good one.  I also have to glance across the street and read those too, and sometimes I must even cross over to peak between cars which are parked too closely together to read.  So far I have yet to find another plate as bad-ass as “I BROKER” but my collection is just getting started and I’m sure there are many more gems to be found.

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